In Memory of New Orleans, part II, Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is the final celebration before Ash Wednesday, or the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent, which is basically a preparation for Holy Week, or the religious celebrations surrounding Easter. Although Mardi Gras is really a Catholic Church deal, it is celebrated widely by all denominations in southeastern Louisiana. At any rate, Carnivale is something that is more typically celebrated by the Catholic countries with some occasional join-ins by the local Christian denominations. Mardi Gras is officially a holiday in Louisiana (or it was when I was growing up there) and often we’d get the Monday off beforehand as well.
The history of Mardi Gras in Louisiana really begins with the founding of Louisiana itself, by the French adventurers and explorer brothers Le Moyne, Iberville and Bienville, respectively. My eighth grade history teacher, Coach Butler (I think he was a football coach, but I’m not sure) adopted the ancient technique of teaching Louisiana history by rote. He had us read and rewrite the book (to make sure we’d read it) paragraph by paragraph. It was crude but mostly effective.
Coach Butler had us memorize “facts” which he then helpfully synthesized for us in class. He had a pungent way of speaking. “Founded by crooks, run by crooks, financed by crooks, and finally run by crooks again!”…and he wasn’t wrong. He also had the novel idea of teaching us something useful. So in addition to learning Louisiana’s major crops (cotton, soybeans, sugarcane, rice) and exports (oil) we also learned how to do our taxes. He had us do the basic tax forms for if we were married, single, with and without dependents. That and balancing checkbooks (3rd grade I think) were the only very practical things I recall learning pre-high school!
From my hazy understanding of colonizing in the Americas, there were two sorts of people that had a hand in these imperial ventures, the financiers and the diplomat generals. Iberville and his brother Bienville fit into the latter category. Iberville was the older brother and had been an agent pursuing French interest in Canada before ever ending up in Louisiana (which was named by the French explorer de la Salle) and founding a bunch of towns. The colony was a bit of disaster and had trouble maintaining its meager population due to disease.
The first major financier of mention for Louisiana was a man named Antoine Crozat, who was granted the royal monopoly by the French crown to exploit and extract precious metals which he hoped to find near Mexico (Coach Butler pronounced his name AntWINE). That didn’t work out. Then there was an interlude with the financier and salesman John Law from the Company of the West, who basically financed Louisiana. This didn’t work out either (eventually, he went bankrupt) and later the French government used the colony as a dumping ground and sent over criminals, indentured servants, and “200 women of questionable virtue” to add to the population.
It was never clear to me what, exactly, these men had wanted out of Louisiana to begin with since it didn’t have the fur trade of the north, the watery coastal areas were prone to disastrous flooding, and many of the major cash crops at the time like cotton and sugar cane were not easily grown there (not till modern drainage methods and farming).
Louisiana’s purpose evolved into simply being a strategic marker in the geopolitical gamesmanship of France and Britain.
Now it’s successful only as a tourist trap. So it goes.
Bienville himself eventually became the governor of Louisiana and founded the city of New Orleans in the crescent turn of the Mississippi River (hence New Orleans’s original nickname, “the Crescent City”). Bienville and his brother are credited with bringing Catholic traditions, including the Lenten festival of Mardi Gras to Louisiana.
At any rate, membership in the Krewes for some of the older ones like Comus and Rex used to be restricted by family relations, and I suppose, the traditional “elite” connections. Others appear to be restricted by sex or other specific qualifications. For example the Krewe of Isis was all female while the Krewe of Sparta was all male. There was some controversy over club restrictions at one point about ten years ago, but I believe since that since the Krewes are private clubs, the federal courts allowed it and the Supreme Court hasn’t accepted a case against them. I always thought the Zulu Krewe was the coolest, but I think it was because they handed out gold painted coconuts during their parade!
The public side of the Mardi Gras celebrations are the parades which are run, organized, and staffed by the Krewes. These parades are vehicle after vehicle of fantastically decorated floats, in all sorts of shapes and sizes inspired by pretty much anything and everything and staffed by the Krewes themselves in full regalia (which can be quite impressive). It’s a glittering spectacle and combined with handouts of trinkets such as doubloons (very shiny metallic fake money with the Krewe name and year), cups, beads (very colorful and some, to a childish eye, looking like real pearls), and other unique toys (I remember getting a rubber snake one year) the parades are something out of a child’s dream. One is supposed to stand on the sidelines and scream, “Hey throw me something mister” and then get pelted happily by the goods.
I wasn’t all that aware of the drinking or debauchery associated with Mardi Gras. I think if you’re a kid and you’re not interested, those things are more or less invisible to you. I do remember some older people annoying me once near a New Orleans parade because they smelled very bad (they were drunk).
And as a little aside, I think most outside interpretations of the “sugar beads” (or the really nice beads that are also part of the parade trinket repertoire) have gotten it all wrong. Current interpretations are that in order to obtain them, women are supposed to show off certain feminine body parts located in pairs within the torso region. As I child, I was always told (and not by folks who were trying to shelter me either) that the appropriate etiquette to obtain sugar beads was to kiss the person proffering them. That sounded okay to me then although in retrospect, perhaps showing body parts is less personal!
I still prefer the kissing idea. Perhaps because as a kid I always imagined they meant kissing on the cheek. It seemed friendly rather than crass.
My hometown had its own Mardi Gras parade with a total of two “Krewes” that I can recall. I think one was MCCA (not sure what that stands for) and I dimly remember one called “Sparta”. There are probably more of them now. My mother told me how they picked their respective monarchs. She said that the members got together and gave money bids for how much each was willing to spend on the parties. The person who gave the highest bid was elected ruler. I don’t know if that’s really how it worked, but it seemed like a very sensible idea to me at the time!
I’m sure that drinking did figure heavily in these local balls and parties but I can say with certainty that there was also cake. King Cake is a significant feature of the time leading up to Mardi Gras and is traditionally served at Mardi Gras parties. It’s a yeast “cake” much like a sweet roll often with raisins and/or cinnamon fillings. It fits into the bigger tradition of other Catholic countries’ “Twelfth Night cakes” or sweetbreads that are served on twelfth night (the 12th day of Christmas and January 6th or the Ephiphany). There’s a version of this cake in Mexico too.
King Cake is served beginning after 12th night and all the way up to Mardi Gras. From what I recall, folks would bring king cakes to classes every week (typically on Friday) and everyone would have a piece of the cake that was decorated with a sugar glaze frosting with dyed sugar in the three Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and yellow. They all stand for something (I think) but I’ve forgotten what over the years.
In one piece was hidden “the baby”, literally a little tiny molded plastic naked baby, that you had to be careful not to crunch down on while munching cake. Whoever got “the baby” had to bring next week’s King Cake. Some traditions tie the receipt of the baby with becoming the “king” or “queen” of that particular party with obligations tied to providing next time’s feast. As a child I only fixated on the idea that if you got the baby, you had to bring cake next time. It seemed a worthy tradition and one I did not think I was leaving behind when I left.
Although people where I live now are aware of Mardi Gras, and even go out to celebrate it, it’s not really the same holiday I recall. I discovered that Mardi Gras elsewhere doesn’t come with all the pretty trinkets and cake!
From my childhood Mardi Gras treasure trove I have only one sugar bead left.
And it still looks like real pearls to me.