Mardi Gras

From 1699 to now, Mardi Gras has punctuated the daily lives of the Louisianans for three centuries.  

The colonial carnival

The first trace of a carnival in Louisiana can be found in the history of French colonial place names, heavily influenced by the calendar of Catholic festivals (as evidenced by the presence of Fort de l’Assomption in New France, Chandeleur Island in the Gulf of Mexico and the canton of the Coupe Mardi-Gras in Saint-Domingue), that. On March 2, 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, his brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and twenty other men landed about sixty kilometers from the mouth of the Mississippi, at a place they named “Pointe du Mardi-Gras.”
During the first half of the 18th century, Mardi Gras was celebrated in Louisiana, just like Epiphany, Easter, Corpus Christi or the festival of Saint-Louis, but very irregularly. In a manuscript acquired by the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2005, one of the employees of the French East India Company, Marc-Antoine Caillot, describes a masquerade in which he had taken part on February 20, 1730 (Lundi Gras) beside the Bayou Saint-Jean. This is the oldest written record of a carnival-like celebration in the lands of Louisiana.
From the 1740s, at the instigation of the Marquis de Vaudreuil, balls began to take place on the outskirts of New Orleans. Modelled on those of Versailles or the Opera de Paris, themselves inspired by Venetian balls and British masquerades, they were extremely similar to those organised in other French colonies around the Caribbean. Minuets, cotillons and country dances dominated and, beneath the masks, enslaved people sometimes mingled with the White or free people of color populations.
The transfer of Louisiana’s sovereignty from France to Spain in 1763 changed little about the form of the celebrations. But, on 19th January 1781, the Spanish Cabildo nevertheless published a decree aimed at forbidding the wearing of masks and feathers by Black people in the capital of Louisiana throughout the carnival (officially because of the war between Spain and England).

The modern carnival

In the 1830s, when Louisiana had only recently become the 18th state of the USA, the carnival of New Orleans spilled out of the ballrooms into the streets, initially attracting the approval of contemporary newspapers, then fear when the cavalcades of the French-speaking Creole aristocracy turned into flour and sometimes limestone fights dominated by Irish members of the working class.

If the carnival managed to survive beyond the 1840s, it was in a new, calmer, more peaceful and organized form, with processions of floats interspersed with fanfares. These “parades”, organised by social clubs linked to the city’s economic and political elites, quickly attracted travellers from all around the world, and particularly from France after the 1880s. Aimé Jay (1884), Prosper Jacotot (1888), Mary Bigot (1894), Gustave Sauvin (1895), E.-F. Johanet (1898), Jules Huret (1903) and Thérèse Bentzon (1903) all observed that the festivities of the former colony had now surpassed in splendour and elegance those of the former metropole.

Meanwhile, in the rural parishes of southern Louisiana, the francophone population from the Great Upheaval, dating back to the Seven Years War, continued to celebrate Mardi Gras with rituals inherited from the French Middle-Ages (courir de Mardi Gras).

The contemporary carnival

Since the first parade of the Mystick Krewe of Comus in 1857 (quite clearly inspired from the processions of the Cowbellion of the Rakin Society and the Strikers’ Independent Society in Mobile in the 1830s), social clubs spread rapidly in New Orleans, reaching eighty today. The Louisiana carnival tradition has also taken root across all of the southern USA. From Galveston (Texas) to Washington DC, and including Pensacola (Florida), Memphis (Tennessee) and Saint-Louis (Missouri), numerous towns now welcome tourists during the period from Epiphany to Mardi Gras.

Long forbidden to women, populations of Africans, Jewish, Italian American heritage and the LGBT community, organizations representing these communities have inspired the creation of “counter-traditions” the best-known today being the processions of “Mardi Gras Indians” in New Orleans (a tradition that was probably born in the 1880s), the processions of the Zulu Social Aid And Pleasure Club in New Orleans or the Colored Carnival Association in Mobile, as well as gay balls (the first one dating back to 1958) in New Orleans, Mobile, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

After years of expansion of these festivals thanks to increasingly effective marketing of tourism by the state of Louisiana, the end of the 20th century saw the emergence of smaller carnival organizations (Krewe du Vieux, ‘tit Rex, Box of Wine, krewedelusion, etc.) campaigning for carnivals that were less costly, less polluting, but also more accessible, more participatory, and often more satirical, unconstrained even subversive. The devastating floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 only reinforced this trend, leading some to say that, paradoxically, New Orleans, whose future is still underthreat, is experiencing a “new Golden Age” of the carnival.


Published in may 2021

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