To an Australian, the concept of "Mardi Gras" means only one thing...the Sydney Mardi Gras, an annual celebration of gay pride. Visions of gold spangly shorts and nipple tassels sprang into my friends' eyes when I announced our impending visit to Louisiana. No, we were not coming out! The New Orleans Mardi Gras, like Rio's Carnival, has its origins deeply rooted in Christian tradition. That's right... Christian tradition.
So before I share my own experience of riding a float in the New Orleans Mardi Gras, I feel a little explanation about the New Orleans Mardi Gras is required!
"Mardi Gras" means literally "Fat Tuesday" and is the day we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. It was the day of celebration and feasting before the privations of Lent - hence our own pancake day tradition. In New Orleans it is a season commencing with Epiphany (the day in the Christian calendar when the baby Jesus is visited by the three wise men) and the appearance of the King cakes. King cakes are a highlight of the Mardi Gras. A sort of cinnamon roll (or doughnut pastry) iced with the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green (meaning faith), gold (power) and purple (justice) and containing a trinket - a small plastic baby symbolising the baby Jesus. My friend, M, a teacher tells me it is a tradition to bring King cakes to school and whoever finds the baby in their piece has to bring the next King Cake.
|A King Cake - baby in centre|
The New Orleans Mardi Gras, as we know it, began in the 1850s with the first parade by the Krewe of Comus and is these days, a highly efficient and regulated event. For example no advertising material is allowed and costume is to be worn at all times on the float. Costume consists of a hat, mask and tunic (no little spangly shorts involved!). As I discovered, being a float rider is both hot and dirty work so the costume serves a practical purpose apart from preserving the anonymity of the rider!
Mardi Gras is not just one parade on one day, a whole parade season begins two weeks before Mardi Gras day with daily parades. No parades now go through the French Quarter itself - the main route is St. Charles Avenue and down Canal Street. Many parishes (local council areas) in New Orleans have their own local parades as well.
A KREWE is a social grouping, each responsible for the organisation of its own parade. There are at least 50 Krewes in New Orleans. Some are all women, many just all men (the more traditional Krewes), some are for African Americans (Krewe of Zulu - although I was astonished to see that some of the riders in Zulu were white people in black face!). Our own Krewe, the Krewe of Morpheus is a comparative newcomer, formed in 2002 and being a "co-ed" Krewe, meaning both men and women can be members. More on Morpheus later!
While each Krewe has its own King and Queen, there is one King for the whole Mardi Gras Season, called Rex. The Krewe of Rex and the Krewe of Zulu, the two oldest and (arguably) the most important of Krewes are the only Krewes to parade on Mardi Gras day. The Krewe of Morpheus parades on the Friday night before Mardi Gras day and is the last Krewe to parade, commencing officially at 7.00 pm, following the Krewes of Hermes and d'Etat.
|Bourbon Street crowd waiting for throws|
So now, dear readers, you have some of the background to Mardi Gras...watch this space for Part 2 (on Wednesday) and my own experience of riding a float in the 2013 New Orleans Mardi Gras!
|Alison waiting to ride Float 16....|