Mardi Gras - Myth and History
by Chris Collins
So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine
The New Orleans season of merriment begins on January 6, the Epiphany holiday which comes twelve days after Christmas on the day many cultures celebrate the Three Kings presentation of gifts to the Christ Child.
The spectacular parade countdown to fat Tuesday begins the Friday twelve days before Ash Wednesday. Here, the nearly sixty parades will stir an inimitable mix of royal ritual, teasing bead and bauble giveaways, liberal libations, mask fantasy and joyful excitement until the people's collective soul rises extravagantly on New Orleans Mardi Day to reaffirm its tremendous appetite for the pleasures of life.
Three Centuries of Mardi Gras History The City of New Orleans distinction as the most deeply rooted Carnival culture of the Americas is in large measure due to the French culture's affinity for masked balls, royal ceremony and public entertainment following the Sunday morning mass and the African culture's long-standing attraction to festival arts with rhythm and soul. Serving as North America's main port to the Caribbean and South America, this was a chaotic, syncreatic culture like no other, so different it had to have its own name - Creole.
In the easygoing style of a future carnival culture, the French first laid claim to the mouth of the Mississippi river and the upriver Louisiana territory in l682. However, it was not till Mardi Gras Day in 1699 that a camp was established called Point du Mardi Gras by French Canadian Pierre D'Iberville at a spot about 60 miles below the present crescent shaped city. In 1717, at the direction of Scottish promoter and bon vivant John Law, and under the authority of' the Regent, Pierre's younger brother Jean de Bienville, established the town of New Orleans because of its crescent shaped location on the Mississippi, close to the giant Lake Pontchartrain.
The city's name honored the Crown Regent and Duke of Orleans who ran the colonies for the child King Louis XV of France in the early 18th century. For the first few years French citizens invested much capital, having been convinced they could get-rich-quick by the brilliant public relations skills of John Law, yet in typical fashion, relatively few French elected to immigrate.
A short time later, the French investors grew impatient and wise to the fact that the promised return on their investment was long term at best. By 1720, Law had to flee France to escape his enraged investors. Despite great colonial ambitions for their strategic port city on the Gulf of Mexico, the inhabitants spent much of their time surviving with the help of the local Choctaw Indians.
Over time this Creole culture would place much stock in a code of "live and let live tolerance. Colonial New Orleans was racially diverse with an active free market economy which encouraged slaves to develop businesses which might contribute to their maintenance. This was America's first truly multi-cultural community.
The King would eventually turn the money losing colony over to his cousin King Carlos Ill of Spain and the much stricter Catholic moral code in 1762. Yet the colony thrived under the Spanish who wisely expanded trade opportunities, tolerated local traditions and eventually married into the prominent local families.
Despite the Spanish affinity for a solemn Sunday, the Afro-Creole tradition of gathering on Sundays for music and dance at a marketplace plaza on the periphery of the French Quarter known as Congo Square, was the community's most important weekly event. The 19th Century The century began with the great war general and ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte regaining the rights to Louisiana from Spain but an official transfer never took place. Soon President Thomas Jefferson successfully negotiated the sale of the entire Louisiana Territories from France in 1803.
At this time, the city consisted of just the 1300 structures in the French Ouarter and about 8,000 inhabitants over half of whom were black. Nowhere else in North America were blacks accorded the freedom to dance and drum in a public environment of their own choosing.
Authorities would eventually try to restrict the cultural practices to the most popular spot. Place des Negres or Congo Square. Correspondingly, the attention helped make the spot internationally famous and numerous accounts exist of the Sunday afternoon glory of music, motion, and fancy dress. Following a major influx of 10,000 settlers from French Haiti and other islands of the Caribbean, Louisiana became a US state in 1812.
Nevertheless, it was not until 1827 that the right to party in mask was restored. In 1823, the visiting Protestant minister Flint, recorded this description of Negro Carnival. The great Congo-dance is performed. Everything is license and revelry. Some hundreds of negroes, male and female, follow the king of the wake... All the characters that follow him, of leading estimation, have their peculiar dress and their own contortions. They dance and their streamers fly, and the bells that they have hung about them tinkle. Never will you see gayer countenances, demonstrations of more forgetfulness of the past and the future, and more entire abandonment to the joyous existence of the present moment."
Throughout the first half of the l9th century, large waves of French speaking immigrants arrived. Many of them were French Canadians who had refused to renounce their Catholic faith to meet British demands and thus began a round about resettlement process from the Acadia region of Nova Scotia to the sister Bayou region of Southern Louisiana. Their strong culture had a saying "Laissez les bons temps rouler" or let the good times roll' which complemented the Creole style yet also needed its own name, Cajun.
For some time, the only refined Carnival festivities open to the wealthy northerners were the Quadroon Balls which were revived after the departure of the Spaniards. French Creole society arranged marriages for economic and social reasons and it was at these Balls that gentlemen might select well educated mistresses whose lighter skin was supposed to mean their ancestry was less than one quarter black.
The revelry and lively atmosphere of these Balls was legendary and considered by many the highlight of the carnival season. By the mid 1840's New Orleans was one of America's great cities, the fourth largest as well as owner of the country's second largest port. Not without some tension, for the growing American English speaking White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) were moving to gain political power. The prudish WASPs disapproved of the moral climate of New Orleans and of carnival in particular. That the French Creoles were notoriously snobbish and their grand affairs for the elite were exclusive debutante carnival balls must have had its effect for the new WASP clubs were just as exclusive.
Control of the City Council by Anglo-Americans occurred in 1852 and is most remembered for its tightening of Afro-American freedoms including an 1858 ban on organizations (including churches) not under the control of whites. While Mardi Gras processions in New Orleans had long been the norm, historians have chosen to cite 1857, when the Mystic Krewes of Comus, Merrie Monarchs of Mirth introduced torch-lit nighttime parades as the modern-day inception of Mardi Gras. In 1872, city-wide Mardi Gras enchantment occurred and it was the vision of royal rule of unruliness which captured the collective imagination. The new krewe of Red introduced their King to complement the Queen first presented by the Twelfth Night Revelers the previous year.
The event introduced not only a ruler but also the official Mardi Gras flag, colors (green, gold and purple standing for faith, power, and justice) and the royal anthem. This song "If Ever I Cease to Love" was from the burlesque show "Blue Beard" and featured these inexplicable nonsense lyrics now known by all natives. "if ever I cease to love, May cows lay eggs and fish grow legs. If ever I cease to love."
The show's beautiful singing sensation Lydia Thompson had inspired a visit by a Russian suitor, the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff which had in turn inspired the city to set new high standards for parade pageantry. Ever since, royal revelry has been the organizing principle of this Creole Carnival culture which knows only two seasons; before Carnival and after Carnival.
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