MYTH & HISTORY
| 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 Gras 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 entertainments following Sunday morning mass and the African cultures 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 syncretic culture like no other, so different it had to have its own name--Creole.
|In the easy going style of a future carnival
culture, the French first laid claim to the mouth of the great Mississippi
river and the upriver Louisiana territory in 1682. 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 strategic location on the Mississippi
close to the giant Lake Pontchartrain.
The City 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 and each other. 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 III 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 saw their freedoms expanded. In fact, under the Spanish, slaves could use their market earnings to purchase their freedom even if their owners objected. 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 century began with the great war general and ruler of France, Napoleon Bonapart 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 quarter 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 Négres 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.
While Mardi Gras processions in New Orleans had long been the norm, historians have chosen to cite 1857, when the Mystic Krewe 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 Rex 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 royal 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.
Come 1862 and the Civil War the Afro-Creole spirit was quickly revived with the assistance of federal troops. However, despite some glorious unifying special events, the post-war reconstruction period was about increasing division between the races with liberty and justice for all but blacks. Eventually, Homer Adolph Plessy, the New Orleans Creole of color, challenged and won a lower court victory that these restrictions on freedom were unconstitutional. Nonetheless, on an appeal in 1896, the Supreme Court decreed the landmark legal sanction of "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks and whites. This would serve as the major stimulus for the all but complete removal of blacks from the political process throughout the entire South.