There is no one way to celebrate Mardi Gras, a dizzying amalgamation of happenings that occur within a framework of established conventions. Nevertheless, when planning a Mardi Gras party, you’re better off knowing about king cake cheats, the prerogatives of tinsel royalty, the sociology of “earning” beads and the importance of foolishness in the observance of tradition.
Everybody knows that Mardi Gras is a time to frolic and have fun, to cut loose — to throw down, as they say in the Big Easy. But what about the trappings and traditions — the masks, beads, king cake and mock royalty; the ubiquitous purple, green and gold? Aren’t these mere trivialities — just so much froufrou — when the real reason for the season is to let pleasure rule?
Yes and no. Mardi Gras is an amalgamation of crazy habits and rituals that occur within a framework of established conventions. As a point of departure for celebrating — a collection of reference points, really — that framework is infinitely flexible, allowing for plenty of freedom to improvise.
Mardi Gras customs include balls and parties; thematic parades with floats and marching bands; walking-club processions; acquiring beads and other baubles tossed from floats or balconies; and general revelry in the streets. All of which are augmented in various ways by pretend royalty, costuming/fancy dressing, king cake; special decorations and props; beads and other baubles handed out or tossed from floats or balconies; plus music, drinking and dancing. Collectively, these elements comprise a cultural “tool kit” or repertoire whereby different themes and symbols are continuously cobbled together, recycled and reinterpreted through a wide variety of art forms and aesthetic motifs.
Mardi Gras, in short, is a highly dynamic phenomenon, in which traditions are constantly being reinterpreted and invented anew. There is no one way to celebrate Mardi Gras.
So, yes, anyone can buy some provisions and throw a “Mardi Gras party.” But doing so without bonding in some way to the framework, i.e., the Mardi Gras tradition, is akin to observing Thanksgiving without reference to Pilgrims and turkeys or Easter without reference to Jesus and bunny eggs.
Given some of the prevalent images of Mardi Gras in the popular consciousness — masked riders tossing trinkets from glitzy parade floats, women leaning over French Quarter balconies to flash flesh as amateur paparazzi and drunken college boys hoot and jeer — it’s little wonder why the festival’s connection to Judeo-Christian tradition may seem somewhat tenuous, at best. Suffice is to say, the Dionysian spirit of pre-Christian revels involving festive release, character change and disguise, and the suspension of the usual social order survived in Carnival, which came to be more or less accepted by Church fathers as a necessary period of foolishness and folly before the atonement and abstinence of Lent. Because the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, was one of feasting, it came to be known as Fat Tuesday or, as the French would say, Mardi Gras.
Is there a difference between Carnival and Mardi Gras? Strictly speaking, yes — although the terms are often used interchangeably. Carnival is the season of merriment that begins on feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) — it’s the twelfth day of Christmas, the day the gift-bearing wise men visited the Christ child — and culminates on Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is supposed to represent a farewell to the fat, or flesh, as traditionally symbolized by the fatted bull or ox (boeuf gras). Nowadays king cake is the most widely recognized symbol of pre-Lenten feasting. It customarily appears on Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, but is most in demand in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday.
Included with each cake is a small plastic baby. In New Orleans, popular custom holds that whoever receives the slice that contains the baby must purchase the next cake and throw a party.
Concealing a tiny treasure in a celebratory cake has long been a tradition in Europe. Originally a bean was used, and its discovery commemorated the discovery of Jesus’ divinity by the Magi. Legend has it that the cakes were made in the shape of a ring and colorfully decorated to resemble a bejeweled crown. The finder of the bean or trinket, duly anointed king or queen, would preside over the festivities, often with a consort of his or her choosing.
Perhaps in part because king cake has become so commonplace — appearing on Friday afternoons at the office or practically any festive occasion during the Carnival season — utilizing the so-called “luck-of-the-draw” method, whereby the finder of the cherished plastic baby is automatically elevated into the pantheon of royals, is more the exception these days than the rule.
In any case, whoever gets the baby is supposed to buy the next cake. It’s a game, based on an honor system. The party-goer who gets the slice with the baby is supposed to announce, “I got the baby!”
Alas, as the king cake ritual has taken on a more casual form, reports of abuses have surfaced. King-cake cheats, as described by Siona LaFrance in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “get the baby, but remain mum.” Or they “cut into the cake and, if the knife touches plastic, shift it to avoid the baby, or worse, leave the baby orphaned amidst the crumbs and sugar icing.”
As horrifying as that may seem, things can get even uglier when king cake neophytes mistake the ritual for a treasure hunt and their fork for a shovel. Consider what ensued when Maria Chandler, a New Orleans native residing in Beverly Hills, decided, as she relates in an interview, to “share the culture” with some newbies.
“I said, ‘Whoever gets the baby gets to throw another king cake party.’ Everybody thought, ‘Oh, Mardi Gras king cake party! I want a piece!’
“It was pandemonium,” she continues. “They all went crazy. They ate some of it, but they were digging for that baby. That was the main objective.” Result: culinary carnage.
Mardi Gras is an idiosyncratic melding of the sacred and profane, but when it comes to king cake, not much is sacred anymore. There are now K-9 king cakes for dogs, and it’s not unheard of for school kids to be served peanut-butter-and-jelly king cake. Moreover, king cakes come in shapes and colors to complement just about any occasion.
Amidst the king cake blitz, one can at least take comfort in the fact that a Mardi Gras king cake is still dutifully topped with purple, green and gold/yellow granules or sprinkles. These colors are to Mardi Gras what red, white and blue are to the 4th of July.
History doesn’t record the exact reason why the Rex organization, in making its Mardi Gras debut in 1872, adopted the color scheme, though Carnival historian Errol Laborde, in his book Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization, plausibly asserts that the krewe members were guided by the laws of heraldry.
In any case, the colors, which looked good together in a gaudy sort of way, captured the public’s imagination and, via Rex’s 1892 procession, entitled “Symbolism of Colors,” came to signify justice, faith and power, respectively. On a less idealistic level, they speak to a collective mania known as Mardi Gras Madnes and the tendency of citizens of the realm to revel in decorative frenzies.
Indeed, Mardi Gras is like Halloween in that the accouterments of the holiday seem to grow exponentially. New Orleanians just can’t seem to get enough of it.
Mardi Gras dolls and masks have been known to wind up as grill ornaments on the front-ends of delivery vehicles; tricolored wreaths hang from doors and gates all over town; poles and pillars are wrapped in tinsel and ribbons; Mardi Gras-themed store windows lure bauble junkies; elaborately festooned balconies add to the festive ambiance of the French Quarter; and at night, the cupola of the Hibernia National Bank building, in the Central Business District, is bathed in stripes of purple, green and gold light.
Mardi Gras Christmas trees are a trend. Hard-core Mardi Gras people are said to bleed purple, green and gold.
So if you’re planning a Mardi Gras party, while not necessarily needing to roll out a tricolored carpet, you’ll at least have to pay homage to Carnivaldom’s culture of festivity by splashing some “PGG” around somewhere. Even if that means going no further than to rummage through a closet for some old Mardi Gras beads (which, among many other uses, can dress up a buffet table or be hung from doorknobs, chandeliers and lampshades).
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras revels can range from intimate gatherings with king cake and Champagne to glittering, elaborately choreographed balls; from thematic parades with fantastic floats to spontaneous eruptions of dance and joie de vivre in the street; from costume contests to coronation ceremonies; from family picnics with red beans and rice to tea parties held in honor of debutantes. But if the gala is diffuse and lacking in centralized organization, even the most offbeat and loosely organized activities have some things in common with the grand spectacles.
Behind most any Mardi Gras endeavor is a leader, known as the captain or big chief. In general terms, the captain’s role is to set the pace and light the fires to keep things going, to get the word out that it’s time for the “krewe” — the generic term for virtually any group involved in Mardi Gras — to congregate and plan for the gala.
In Mardi Gras parlance, the term “captain” most properly refers to the leader of a non-profit organization that sponsors a parade and/or ball. As the “power behind the throne,” the captain basically calls the shots. Traditionally, his or her identity is supposed to be kept secret — a legacy dating back to the 1800s, when a handful of “mystic” societies, modeled after similar groups in Mobile, Ala., orchestrated Carnival festivities in New Orleans. While leaders of krewes that adhere to the so-called “old-line” tradition still strive to maintain their anonymity, other captains have readily embraced modern-day celebrity culture, giving TV interviews and posing unmasked for photos in glossy magazines.
The Mistick Krewe of Comus coined the term “krewe” in 1857. In ancient mythology, from which many New Orleans krewes derive their names, Comus is the son of the necromancer Circe and reveler Bacchus. But the Comus krewemen drew their inspiration from the work of English poet and pamphleteer John Milton. In his list of “persons” at the front of A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, Milton refers to “Comus and his crew.” In adopting the whimsical variation of “crew” and the archaic spelling of “mystic,” the founders of Comus, who were predominantly of Anglo-Saxon descent, supposedly intended to give their endeavor an Old English flavor.
Comus is often credited with having originated the “format” of modern-day Mardi Gras — presenting a thematic, meticulously organized spectacle, followed by a tableau ball, at a time when Mardi Gras was a somewhat unruly street-masking affair. In a torchlit procession on Mardi Gras, members were got up as “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” They rolled with brass bands and two floats — one carrying a member personifying the krewe’s namesake god; the other, Satan.
While parades and parties sponsored by krewes can involve untold hours of planning and preparation, Mardi Gras is also very much about serendipity and improvisation, about doing what’s right on the spur of the moment and rationalizing later. An idea for a krewe can easily take wing on a whim or headline in the news.
Example: A week before Fat Tuesday 1999, Jerry Falwell, founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority, warned in his newspaper that Tinky Winky, of the cult children’s TV showThe Teletubbies, was a gay role model. In a take-off on the resulting controversy, a group calling themselves the Krewe of Falwell came out for Mardi Gras in Teletubby getups — and walked away with first prize in the group category at the 35th annual Bourbon Street Awards costume contest. Playing off the fact that the characters in the show have televisions in their stomachs, the krewe’s costumes featured the mug of the right-wing evangelist.
The prototypical impromptu, follow-your-bliss krewe was born on a rainy Christmas Eve night in 1831, in Mobile, Ala. A cotton broker named Michael Krafft — described in a contemporary account as “a fellow of infinite jest and…fond of fun of any kind” — apparently found himself in the doorway of a hardware store, quite likely intoxicated. He gathered up a string of cowbells and attaching them to the teeth of a rake, went on his merry way, clattering. According to what Carnival Historian Samuel Kinser regards as the most credible account of that night’s events, Krafft, having drawn a crowd, caught the attention of a passer-by who exclaimed, “ ‘Hello, Mike — what society is this?’ Michael, giving his rake and extra shake and looking up at his bells, responded, ‘This? This is the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.’ ”
The Cowbellions went on to become Mobile’s premiere Carnival organization, sponsoring New Year’s Eve masquerades and even venturing to New Orleans in the late 1830s to partake in Mardi Gras. In 1840, the krewe presented its first parade with floats depicting a specific theme: “Heathen Gods and Goddesses.” A masked ball followed.
The Cowbellion de Rakin Society, founded on lark, had become an institution, showing the way for Comus. And although Comus no longer parades — it withdrew from the streets after its 1991 procession, because of differences with the New Orleans City Council over a newly adopted Carnival antidiscrimination ordinance — members have been known to march through the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, brandishing rakes and ringing cowbells in homage to the Cowbellions and the waggish spirit of Michael Krafft.
Foolishness in observance of tradition is a staple of Mardi Gras. It’s a time when cunningly sarcastic individuals really shine, when otherwise inappropriate actions might seem entertaining. In New Orleans at Carnival time, omnipresent jester imagery serves as a constant reminder that true Carnival custom involves the spirit of merry mockery.