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Mardi Gras in New Orleans

New Orleans Mardi Gras History

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Mardi Gras

History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

During the 18th century, many wealthy Louisiana families would leave their rural plantations to spend the winter months in New Orleans, where they held lavish parties and masked balls. The first written reference to Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans appears in a 1781 report of the Spanish government, which then controlled Louisiana. The report addressed problems that might arise from allowing slaves to wear masks at the winter festivities. The United States took control of Louisiana in 1803, and the New Orleans city council banned all masked entertainment three years later. Enforcement of the law appears to have been erratic. By the mid-1820s masks and costumes were again legal. The first documented Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837, and the parade soon became an annual tradition. However, outbursts of violence at the parades gave the festivities a bad name.

In 1857 a group calling itself The Mystik Krewe of Comus staged the first modern Mardi Gras parade, a torchlit nighttime procession of floats illustrating themes from classical mythology and literature. Following the American Civil War (1861-1865), many new krewes soon began offering additional parades and balls. The Krewe of Rex, organized in 1872, pioneered many innovations that became defining features of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival, selected the Carnival colors, and adopted the song “If Ever I Cease to Love” as a Mardi Gras anthem.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mardi Gras became increasingly important to New Orleans. The festivities attracted visitors, generated income for local merchants, and added to the city’s mystique. The first African American Mardi Gras organization was established in 1894. An all-women group was founded two years later. By the late 1960s, however, many people began to worry that Mardi Gras was in decline. Critics of the parades felt that Mardi Gras had become old-fashioned, and they claimed that the exclusivity of the traditional krewes deterred the lucrative tourist trade. In 1968 the newly formed Krewe of Bacchus staged a parade featuring huge floats and led by an out-of-town celebrity. Other organizations soon followed suit, inaugurating the era of so-called super-krewes.

In 1992 the New Orleans city council passed a law prohibiting racial discrimination in groups that sponsored parades using city streets. The law required krewes to provide evidence to the council that they did not discriminate on the basis of race in selecting their membership. Many of the oldest and most prestigious krewes, which had traditionally shrouded their membership policies in secrecy, refused to comply with the law and ceased to parade. Nonetheless, Mardi Gras continues to attract tourists to New Orleans from around the world. Today Mardi Gras draws more than 3 million people to parades and generates approximately $1 billion for the local economy.

By Brent Lanford, B.A., M.A., © Microsoft® Encarta®

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