Mardi Gras: carnival Louisiana style


Recently, Ana and I had the pleasure of attending an event at the local US Consulate to promote tourism in the American South. She’s lived in Florida and North Carolina and I’ve lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, so I guess it was kind of like going home for a visit.

Since I left the States in ’97, as you can imagine, amongst the familiar was the new. We met lots of people with interesting information to share with you. The first stop on our tour is Louisiana, and just in time for Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday.

I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans.

I envision brightly painted Victorian gingerbread fretwork. I hear jazz and laughter. I feel the party.

Deborah Theis of Wiechmann Tourism Service was on hand to show me that Louisiana is much more culturally diverse than I thought.

New Orleans is the most famous American destination for Mardi Gras activities, but virtually every city and town in Louisiana has some sort of Mardi Gras celebration on or before Fat Tuesday. Large Louisiana cities such as Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Lake Charles, Lafayette and Houma host multiple Mardi Gras parades each year.

We all know about the parades where they throw, from floats, tens of thousands of colored beads, themed cups and doubloons (commemorative coins), trinkets, toys and items of humorous or historical nature. But surprisingly, there is an unusual Mardi Gras celebration in the rural areas of Cajun Country, such as Mamou, Eunice and Church Point.

The Courir de Mardi Gras, or Running of Fat Tuesday, involves costumed locals going from house to house on horseback, performing tricks and stunts in return for donations of chicken, sausage, vegetables and rice. At the day’s end, these ingredients are used to make a massive gumbo for the community at a downtown street party, usually featuring live Cajun and zydeco music.

New Orleans turns 300 this year, and there will be lots of events celebrating its history, diversity and resilience.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was very important to the people that they celebrate Mardi Gras. It was a sign that everything would be ok again.

Mardi Gras can be traced back to medieval Europe, but how did it get to Louisiana?

It was hot in France and they exported it to their colonies. In Louisiana, named after Louis XIV, it goes back to day one when French-Canadian explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, set foot about 60 miles directly south of New Orleans on 2 March 1699. He named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday.

Nearby they established a fort, modern day Mobile, and the first Mardi Gras took place in 1703. What started with a secret society pushing a large bull’s head through the streets on a cart in Mobile, had progressed by 1740 into elegant society balls organised by Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, in a young New Orleans.

Excited crowd eagerly awaits the Mardi Gras parade. Yes! Those are papier mâché. (Photo found pinned on Pinterest)
Excited crowd eagerly awaits the Mardi Gras parade. Yes! Those are papier mâché. (Photo found pinned on Pinterest)

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeaux,” lit the way for the krewe’s members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity. It was 1870 when the first “throws” came in.

The history of Mardi Gras may seem to be all papier mâché and balls, but there has been a dark side to the masquerade.

With no one able to see who was behind the masks and streets so crowded that police were unable to apprehend those wishing to settle scores, it was a day of violence against non-whites. Blacks were not welcome or didn’t want to participate in the open events of the day, so they formed their own secret celebrations at secret times in secret parts of the city.

Mardi Gras Indians — the parade most white people don’t see. The ceremonial procession is loose, the parade is not scheduled for a particular time or route… that is up to the Big Chief.” – Larry Bannock

Although made up of mainly African-Americans, they chose to call themselves Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom. They have never forgotten this support.

Harry Connick Jr. has long been my favorite Louisianian. Even though I haven’t even been there, I do miss it. I hope one day it gets taken off my very long “places to go” list. I can’t imagine anyone not loving it there. I saw the excitement in the eyes of those who were wearing the Mardi Gras beads Deborah was handing out. They seemed to have been transported. Was it really those beads or was it the yummy nectar from the Bayou Rum distillery? Yes, the satsuma was the best ever!

Cover shot: The Louisiana table was a big hit at the US Consulate’s event to promote tourism in the southern states. (Image courtesy of the US Consulate in Leipzig)

Artist, curator and writer: maeshelle west-davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums.

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