All the world knows something of the colourful panorama of the pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations in the American Creole capital of New Orleans, Louisiana. The fantastic parades of allegorical floats, bearing maskers who toss shimmering beads and other largesse into teeming crowds, bands blaring and dancers strutting between the floats. Individuals and groups of promiscuous maskers cavorting the streets of “The City that Care Forgot”. Get the occasional glimpse of glittering royalty and their fortunate invitees, entering and exiting private ballrooms, have all been portrayed in print and image around the globe for more than a century and a half.
Many people will be surprised to learn that New Orleans is not the only city in Louisiana or the Gulf of Mexico region, for that matter, which celebrates Carnival and its climax of Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) with such extravagance, frivolity and carefree abandon.
Mardi Gras was observed by the French explorers who accompanied the Sieur d’Iberville up the mighty Mississippi River on Shrove Tuesday 1699. Recalling the masking and merrymaking of Mother France, these hardy men christened a nearby stream “Bayou Mardi Gras.” Nineteen years later, in 1718, the Creole city of la Nouvelle Orleans (New Orleans) was founded slightly further upriver of this isolated spot. In a very short time the entire Louisiana region came to be populated by colonists from France, Quebec, Montreal and, toward the end of the 18th century, by persons of French, African and blended ethnicity from the Caribbean Isles.
To the French and Spanish custom of masking and costume balls, the African-American Louisianans added their own customs, notably disguising themselves as Amerindians. After Louisiana was sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1803, the Anglo-Saxon newcomers introduced the spectacle of organized parades of thematic floats sponsored and ridden by masked “krewes” or secret organization members, patterned on the New Year’s Eve parades in nearby Mobile, Alabama.
The modern parades
Today, metropolitan New Orleans is home to approximately 60 parades, ranging from the socially prestigious 19th and early 20th century parades of the Krewes of Rex, Proteus and Hermes, to the unrivalled spirit of the parade of Zulu, King of the Africans, to the “superkrewe” parades of huge, mega-floats such as the Krewes of Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus, to the politically satirical parades of Chaos and Le Krewe d’Etat and many smaller parades and promenades.
Indescribably intoxicating is the magic of those parades held at night, flanking the long line of fantastic floats, bearing costumed maskers on their musical pilgrimage, through straining masses of trinket-vying humanity strut robed men bearing 19th century “flambeaux” or metal torches which smoke and splutter and drip fire onto the streets. It simply has to be experienced in person to adequately appreciate this generations-old panoply of aesthetic splendour and mystique.
Celebrated by a million
Each year, a million or more people celebrate the Carnival season and its climax, Mardi Gras, in New Orleans and suburbs. The largest parades draw 200,000 and more spectators. Some visitors never make it to the formal parades, finding enough amusement in the extravagant costume contests, music of all genres, and unrivalled cuisine offered within the historic French Quarter, the New Orleans of 1718.
Carnivals outside New Orleans
Beyond New Orleans, three Louisiana cities each draw 100,000 or more revellers for their own Carnival parades, these being Lafayette, hub city of Acadiana or “Cajun Country”; Houma, metropolis of the bayous and marshes near the Gulf of Mexico; and New Roads, a predominantly Creole community founded not long after New Orleans.
Of these three, New Roads hosts the state’s oldest Mardi Gras outside New Orleans, Community Center Carnival parade is one of the largest African-American sponsored events in the nation, having been founded in 1922. The New Roads Lions Carnival parade, the first known Mardi Gras parade to be established as a charitable fundraiser is a direct successor to the Children’s Carnival parade of 1932.
Nine parades roll in Houma and seven in Lafayette during the two weekends preceding Shrove Tuesday, on the night of Lundi Gras and on Mardi Gras itself. Here, unlike the community-based charitable nature of New Roads’ two parades, participation in which is open to the general public, float riding within the parades in Lafayette, Houma, Thibodaux, Baton Rouge and other Louisiana cities and towns are primarily exclusive to the sponsoring krewe members, in the New Orleans manner.
Kings and Queens of the Parades
Behind the scenes, the Kings and Queens who rule over the most elaborate of New Orleans’ and other Louisiana cites’ Carnival parades hold “court” in elaborate masked balls. These are limited to costumed krewe members and their select guests. The royalty, dukes, maids and other attendants are usually attired in the bejewelled and be-satined splendour of medieval France. Meantime, the guests must wear “costume de rigeur” of formal gowns and elbow length gloves for the ladies dignifiied white ties, black tails and white kid gloves for the gentlemen. This is the official debutante season for Creole Louisiana, and generations of white gowned young ladies have thus entered “society,” amidst the scintillating splendour of Carnival balls.
The phenomena of “Call out Dances”
Many of the oldest krewes adhere to the 19th century of “call-out” dances, in which select female attendees who have received a “call-out” card in their invitations are ceremoniously bidden to the dance floor by masked krewe members. While it is customarily fathers, husbands or suitors of the ladies thus honoured who extend the special summons and dance with them, the illusion of the maskers’ anonymity is upheld with the utmost seriousness of all involved. At the conclusion of each “call-out” dance, the maskers give their respective dance partners a “favor” or souvenir of the evening, usually in the form of a jeweled pin or pendant bearing the insignia of the krewe and/or an allusion to that year’s particular ball “theme.”
Courir du Mardi Gras
At the other end of the Carnival spectrum and wildly colourful in its rusticity is the “Courir du Mardi Gras” or “running of the Mardi Gras” in French, rural, Southwest Louisiana. In and around the town of Mamou and similar communities populated by Creole and Acadian French families, participants in the various Courir events are masked and costumed as they ride horseback through the countryside, procuring live chickens and other items for an open-to-all chicken gumbo feast held at day’s end. Ancient French songs are chanted by the maskers en route and again to the accompaniment of fiddles and accordions during the gumbo feasting. The merrymaking and dancing continues until midnight, and marks the commencement of the solemn and penitential season of Lent.
A Mecca for the Carnival goer
From the magnificence of 19th century “old line” Carnival balls in New Orleans to the rustic shenanigans of the rural Courir du Mardi Gras, Louisianans and the thousands of visitors who make the “Carnival State” their mecca each season can, and do, find something for all tastes and interests amidst the masked frivolity of Creole Louisiana.