Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
New Orleans Mardi Gras
The New Orleans Carnival season starts on Twelfth Night (which is the religious Feast of the Epiphany), January 6. The season of balls (some of them in costume) and king cake parties begins on that date, as well as smaller parades. From about 2 weeks before Mardi Gras Day, there is at least one good-sized parade every day; the parades tend to get larger and more elaborate as Mardi Gras Day approaches. In the final week of Carnival many events large and small occur throughout New Orleans and surrounding communities. Many young tourists center their visits on a small portion of upper Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. The Mardi Gras celebrations include parades organized by Carnival Krewes. Krewe float riders toss throws to the crowds; the most common throws are strings of cheap colorful beads, doubloons (aluminium dollar-sized coins usually impressed with the Krewe logo), decorated plastic throw cups, and small inexpensive toys. To New Orleanians, Mardi Gras refers only to the final and most elaborate day of the Carnival Season; out of town visitors tend to refer to the entire Carnival as "Mardi Gras". Some locals have thus started to refer to the final day of Carnival as Mardi Gras Day (technically redundant) to avoid confusion.
Mardi Gras was brought to Louisiana by early French settlers. The first record of the holiday being marked in Louisiana is 1699. The starting date of festivities in New Orleans is unknown, but an account from 1743 notes that the custom of Carnival balls was already established by that date. Processions and masking in the streets on Mardi Gras Day took place, were sometimes prohibited by law, and were quickly renewed whenever such restrictions were lifted or little enforced.
On Mardi Gras of 1857 the Mystick Krewe of Comus held its first parade. This was neither (as has sometimes been mistakenly asserted) the beginning New Orleans Mardi Gras nor the first New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, but it did usher in a new era of more organized Carnival festivities. It started a number of continuing traditions, and is considered the first Carnival Krewe in the modern sense.
War, economic, political, and weather conditions sometimes led to cancelation of some or all major parades, especially during the American Civil War and World War II, but celebration of Carnival has always been observed in the city.
1972 was the last year in which large parades went though the narrow streets of the city's old French Quarter neighborhood; larger floats and crowds and safety concerns led to the city government prohibiting big parades in the Quarter.
In 1979 the New Orleans police department went on strike. All the official parades were canceled or moved to surrounding communities such as Jefferson Parish. Many fewer tourists came to the city than usual. Masking, costuming, and celebrations continued none the less, with National Guard troops maintaining order. Guardsmen prevented crimes against persons or property but made no attempt to enforce laws of morality or drug use; for these reasons some of the city's French Quarter bohemian community are fond of calling 1979 the city's best Mardi Gras ever.
In 1991 the New Orleans city council passed an ordinance that city funds could not be used to pay for police and sanitation for any event held on public streets by carnival organizations which imposed racial segregation in their bylaws. In protest, the old white 19th century krewes Comus and Momus stopped parading. Proteus also suspended its parade that year, but their membership ultimately decided to abide by the council resolution and Proteus returned to the parade schedule.
While it is a sad chapter in Carnival history, the matter is actually that the 19th century krewes memberships are not so much racially exclusive as they are "class exclusive". In this case, the krewes involved are composed of wealthy old-line families, who in this case, just happen to be white, and whose membership dates back many years.
While many krewes operate under a business structure, hoping to attract members to pay for the right to parade, each has its own traditions, which attract people of like mind. In contrast, the old-line krewes use the structure of the parades and balls to extend the traditions of the debutante season in their own respective social circles.
Contemporary Mardi Gras
The parade season starts off some 3 weekends before Mardi Gras Day with the Krewe du Vieux parade.
There is usually at least one parade every night starting 2 Fridays before Mardi Gras.
The weekend before Mardi Gras
The population of New Orleans more than doubles from visitors this weekend. Friday night sees the large Krewe of Hermes and satirical Krewe D'Etat parades, as well as small neighborhood parades like the French Quarter Fairy Fey Parade and the Krewe of OAK. Numerous daytime parades roll Saturday and Sunday. The first of the "Super Krewes" rolls on Saturday night, Krewe of Endymion followed by the Bacchus Parade on Sunday night.
Monday is known as "Lundi Gras" ("Fat Monday"). The Monarchs of Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club the Krewe of Rex (who will parade the following day) arrive on the Mississippi River front at the foot of Canal Street, while an all day party is staged along the riverfront. Uptown, parades start with the Krewe of Proteus (dating back to 1882, the second oldest still parading in the city) followed by the music-themed super-Krewe "Krewe of Orpheus " Monday night.
Mardi Gras Day
Celebrations begin early in the morning on Mardi Gras Day.
Uptown, the parade of the Zulu rolls, followed by the grandest of all, the Rex Parade, eventually making their way down to Canal Street. A number of smaller parading organizations with less expensively decorated "truck floats" follow Rex.
Numerous smaller parades and walking clubs also parade around the city. "The Jefferson City Buzzards ", "The Lion's Club", and "Pete Fountain's Half Fast Marching Club" all start early in the day Uptown and gradually make their way to the French Quarter with at least one jazz band. At the other end of the old city, "The Society of Saint Anne" journeys from the Bywater, through Marigny and the French Quarter to meet Rex on Canal Street. The "Pair-O-Dice Tumblers" rambles from bar to bar in Marigny and the French Quarter from noon to dusk. Various groups of Mardi Gras Indians, divided into uptown and downtown tribes, parade in their finery.
The end of each Mardi Gras
Promptly at the stroke of midnight at the end of Fat Tuesday, a mounted squad of New Orleans police officers clears upper Bourbon Street (where the bulk of out-of-town revelers congregate), with the announcement that Mardi Gras is over, as it is the start of Lent.
As Mardi Gras is observed by many New Orleanians who are not Roman Catholic, so too many of them practice the custom of giving things up for Lent.
It is considered inappropriate and disrespectful to wear Mardi Gras beads during Lent.
Ash Wednesday, the day after Fat Tuesday, is sometimes jokingly referred to as "Trash Wednesday" due to the large amount of refuse typically left in the streets by the previous day's celebrations. The amount of garbage picked up by the city sanitation department this day, measured in tons, is a local news item and is considered to reflect the economic impact of each year's Mardi Gras.
Costumes and masks
Costumes and masks are seldom publicly worn by non-Krewe members on the days before Fat Tuesday (other than at parties), but are frequently worn on Mardi Gras Day. Laws against concealing one's identity with a mask are suspended for the day. Banks are closed; some places with security concerns have signs for people to remove their masks before entering.
Orleans Parish has laws prohibiting commercial advertising on Carnival parades. As Mardi Gras is a traditional calendar holiday, there is no such thing as an "official" Mardi Gras product or sponsor, any more than there can be such a thing as, say, a corporation that could truthfully call itself "the official sponsor of Christmas". Nonetheless, many unscrupulous merchants sell so called "official" merchandise to visiting tourists.
Note: while there is no such thing as an "official Mardi Gras poster", some individual Krewes can and do produce the official poster of their organization each year.
Inexpensive strings of beads and toys have been thrown from floats to parade goers since at least the late 19th century. Until the 1960s the most common form was multi-colored strings of glass beads made in Czechoslovakia. These have been largely supplanted by cheaper and less fragile plastic beads, first from Hong Kong, then from Taiwan, and more recently from the People's Republic of China. Such cheaper beads allowed much greater quantities of beads to be purchased by Krewe members, hence the throws became more numerous and common.
In the 1990s many in the crowds had diminished interest in the cheaper smaller beads, sometimes allowing them to fall on the ground without picking them up. Larger more elaborate plastic beads became preferred, such as fake "pearls" and strands with beads shaped into figures of animals, people, or other objects.
Standards of decency
That same decade various commercial video tapes catering to people of voyeuristic interests helped encourage a tradition of baring female breasts in exchange for long strings of beads. Many people from out of town now associate this with New Orleans Mardi Gras. While standards of what is considered indecent exposure were long more relaxed at Mardi Gras, and women baring their breasts to encourage receiving beads is documented since the 1960s, this is not a major local tradition. It is practiced by many visiting tourists in the upper Bourbon Street area. Some people on balconies or galleries throw beads down to the crowd. Up until recent years the New Orleans police department decided to tolerate bare breasts within the French Quarter so long as the display is not causing public disruption, but would arrest people for more explicit nudity. This is not the case now, as in the last couple of years, the NOPD has been cracking down on such activities, as they tend to induce acts of indecency upon the women baring thier breasts.
In other parts of town conditions are usually not so lenient. While many visiting tourists think of Mardi Gras as an "adult" holiday, many locals think of it as a family tradition; indeed some tend to think of it as something mainly for children. The parades are popular with many local children, many families gather along the parade routes Uptown and in Mid City.
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