What is Mardi Gras?
The Catholic Carnival ‘Boeuf Graf’ or (Fatted Calf) starts on the twelve night of Christmas or the ‘Epiphany’, January 6 and continues thru Mardi Gras or ‘Fat Tuesday’. The following day, Ash Wednesday, the traditional Lenten season begins and marks the start of not consuming any rich foods. For 40 days, you cannot eat eggs, meats or butter until Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday the parishioners go to church for a blessing and the priest puts a thumbprint of ash on your forehead.
Jambalaya and Gumbo were 2 recipes that encompass numerous vegetables and various meats, allowing for bountiful dishes to serve crowds. King cake is a decadent pastry that uses up more ingredients, and pecan pralines and pancakes help use up the sweet side of the pantry.
Want a slice of King Cake?
Be careful - it can change your luck and finances! The King cake is a ring pastry that is similar to a cinnamon bread with pockets filled of pastry crème. The cake is then stuffed with small trinkets, such as a small baby. Tradition dictates that whoever gets the baby will be lucky and have good fortune, making them next year’s King and resulting in them financing next year's party.
What do the colors mean?
Purple: regal, sovereignty, and justice
Gold: Power, wisdom, and wealth
Green: faith and loyalty in love
The colors of Mardi Gras – purple, green, and gold, can be found as early as 1872 at a carnival organized by the company Rex for a Russian aristocrat’s arrival. Rex has held parades in New Orleans for 148 years and continues to be its most prominent parade organizer to date. Rex founders wanted the colors for a flag to represent heraldry meanings so had balconies draped with three colored cloths. The flag’s three colors would be like the tricolors in the flags of the United States, France, and Great Britain.
According to legend, "Mardi Gras colors influenced the choice of school colors for archrivals Louisiana State University (LSU) and Tulane University. They say when LSU was deciding on its colors, the shops in New Orleans had stocked up on purple, green, and gold for the Mardi Gras season. LSU decided upon purple and gold purchasing majority. So, Tulane bought much of the only remaining color – green," (From Sensational Color).
Don't Stop the Carnival
The Historic New Orleans Museum narrates a timeline of events that stopped the parade. The following sections are excepts from this article, which offers a look at when Mardi Gras was cancelled.
American Civil War: 1862–65
It is generally stated that Mardi Gras did not take place during the Civil War years, but that doesn’t mean there were no Carnival celebrations of any kind. It is true that the members of elite antebellum social clubs like the Boston and Pickwick Clubs refused to participate, as they were loyal to the Confederacy, but other social groups, including immigrants and those with Union sympathies, did take part in the celebrations.
In the final two years of the war, Mardi Gras was officially sanctioned by Union commanders, and the lavish ball masques that took place were managed by people and associations with ties to the Union army, including Masonic groups, fire companies, and General Banks’s wife herself. On February 13, 1866, Comus returned to celebrate Mardi Gras with the theme “The Past, The Present, and the Future” and a ball at the Varieties Theater. As much as New Orleans society yearned for a return to normalcy after the war, Reconstruction would forever change the city.
White-Supremacist Violence: 1875
This invitation to the Twelfth Night Revelers’ 1875 Mardi Gras ball was issued before the event was called off. The group made the decision to cancel their ball when additional federal troops arrived to impose order on the city after violence erupted in the streets in September 1874. Image Source: THNOC, the L. Kemper and Leila Moore Williams Founders Collection, 1960.14.88
Reconstruction in New Orleans was marred by political factionalism, white-supremacist violence, and disputed elections, all stemming from emancipation and the increasing involvement of African Americans in politics, the economy, and society in general. Against this complicated landscape, several new krewes formed in the postwar period, including the Twelfth Night Revelers in 1871, as well as Rex and Momus in 1872.
Comus’s infamously racist parade that year was themed “The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species,” and it depicted Warmoth as a snake, Badger as a bloodhound, and African Americans as monkeys. The spectacle prompted the Metropolitan Police to refuse to clear pedestrian traffic along the route, forcing Comus to end its parade early. The political satire of Comus’s parade was a departure from the neutrality of previous years and is credited with establishing the satirical Carnival tradition that continues to this day.
An illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicts the Battle of Liberty Place in which white supremacist militants overthrew Louisiana's Republican government. Image Source: (THNOC, gift of Harold Schilke and Boyd Cruise, 1959.159.21)
On September 14, 1874, thousands of white supremacists calling themselves the Crescent City White League—including members of Rex and Comus, Confederate veterans, and other Democratic political supporters—attacked representatives of the Republican government, which they saw as illegitimate and instigating a race war. Over the course of three days, members of the White League defeated the Metropolitan police forces and the state militia in what was later dubbed by the victors the Battle of Liberty Place. After four days, President Ulysses S. Grant sent in federal troops to reinstate Governor Kellogg and occupy the city for the second time since the Civil War.Perhaps owing to the presence of federal troops, or because of the shattered relationship between local police and the krewes, Rex and Comus canceled their balls and parades for the coming season.
Yellow Fever Outbreak: 1879
Though other krewes canceled their parades because of the yellow fever outbreak in 1879, Rex carried on in spite of it. This illustration depicts the arrival of Rex at the foot of Canal Street on Lundi Gras, 1879. Image Source: THNOC, 19126.96.36.199
In 1878, over 4,000 New Orleanians died of yellow fever while the city and state government failed to respond to the crisis. It was the era before widespread sanitation infrastructure, and the cause of the disease was still misunderstood. The Louisiana State Board of Health refused to declare it an epidemic, so instead private groups like the Howard Association and the Dietetic Association of the Pickwick Club (which formed Comus) worked to feed the hungry, heal the sick by providing private doctors and nurses, and stop the spread of the disease by contracting drainage infrastructure.
After this devastating year, Comus, the Twelfth Night Revelers, and Momus did not parade, but other groups, including Rex and the ‘Phunny Phorty Phellows’, decided to parade as usual in February 1879. Amid the human suffering and quarantine-induced economic woes, many were offended by Rex’s move, including former Republican Governor P.B.S. Pinchback, who blasted the krewe in his newspaper, the Weekly Louisianian.
The turn of the century saw the formation of many new Carnival organizations, including the Krewe of Proteus, the Atlanteans, and the Elves of Oberon. Traditionally excluded from membership in the old-line krewes, African Americans began forming their own Carnival organizations, such as the Original Illinois Club in 1895 and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club in 1909. The first female club, Les Mysterieuses, was active, from 1896 to 1900, but paved way for the future of women’s Carnival organizations.
World War I: 1918
The US entered the First World War in April 1917, so it wasn’t until 1918, the final year of the war, that city officials announced the cancellation of Carnival. Knowing some people would still celebrate, Mayor Martin Behrman made a statement ahead of the festivities: “Now that the Mardi Gras season is approaching, I desire to repeat and to emphasize that masking of every kind and character will be strictly prohibited during that period in New Orleans. This regulation is deemed essential because of the war and the opportunity promiscuous and other masking would afford enemy aliens and other evil-disposed persons to commit crimes while thus disguised.”
Two days before Mardi Gras, the Times-Picayune reported that “no banners of purple, green, and gold are flying, it is true, but the Stars and Stripes have filled their place, and the flag of New Orleans has been raised.” Instead of Carnival parades, New Orleanians held Liberty Bond parades, which were quite successful, with the city exceeding its bond quota on every drive. And, of course, when the end of the war was announced November 11, 1918, the city quickly organized and carried out a large parade on Canal Street to celebrate.
This image from November 11, 1918 shows the scene on Canal Street after the city received news of the Armistice that ended fighting in WWI. Image Source: THNOC, gift of Waldemar S. Nelson, 2003.0182.135
Spanish Flu: 1919
Though the end of the war brought about a joyous time, the winter of 1918 was marked by the spread of Spanish influenza. Much like today, newspapers reported daily case counts. From October 1918 to April 1919, New Orleans experienced over 54,000 cases of the Spanish flu, with nearly 3,500 deaths. The war may have ended, but New Orleans, along with the rest of the world, was still reeling from a deadly pandemic that would plague the city for two years. Although the Spanish flu wasn’t enough to cancel Mardi Gras on its own, it came at a time when the city was still recovering financially from the war. So once again, parades and balls for the upcoming Carnival season were canceled. But this did not stop some New Orleanians from taking to the streets wearing masks and costumes on Mardi Gras Day.
World War II: 1942–45
The top poster, a play on the title of the 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is printed in Mardi Gras colors, possibly as an attempt to appeal to New Orleanians during the Carnival season. The bottom poster would have also been meaningful during Carnival, placing revelry and frivolous spending in opposition to the war effort. Image Source: THNOC, the Anna Wynne Watt and Michael D. Wynne Jr. Collection, 1981.203.4 and 1981.203.1
Within a week of the country’s entrance into the war, city officials announced the cancellation of the 1942 Carnival festivities. The only formal Carnival ball held that season was an event to raise funds for relief work among families of enlisted men in the armed forces. Held Mardi Gras night (February 17, 1942) at the Municipal Auditorium and open to the white public, the ball was themed “The Americas” and was organized by the Army and Navy Club of New Orleans.
In 1943 on Mardi Gras Day, March 9, the Million-Dollar War Bond Drive kicked off. Led by Leon Godchaux Jr., chairman of the Retailers for Victory committee, about 7,000 retail merchants in the city joined in the drive with the goal of selling one million dollars in war bonds and stamps. The effort was so successful that other cities around the country decided to hold similar drives on national holidays for the duration of the war.
After the war ended on September 2, 1945, celebrations abounded, but none were as festive as the Carnival celebration in 1946. Nearly every krewe returned, parading and masquerading in celebration of the war’s end and the return of Mardi Gras.
Korean War: 1951
This costume design was created for the Krewe of Okeanos, one of several Carnival organizations that paraded as usual in 1951, despite the war-related cancellations of the oldest krewes. Image Source: THNOC, gift of Elizabeth Y. Canik, 2017.0436.113
Only five years had passed since the end of World War II when the US entered the Korean War. In 1951, many of the older krewes ended up canceling their presentations because of the national emergency, despite Mayor Chep Morrison assuring New Orleanians that there was no need to do so. In fact, Mayor Morrison wrote a letter to the captains of 12 krewes letting them know that the federal government did not anticipate any reduction in tourist travel. Nevertheless, Rex, Comus, Proteus, Momus, and others chose to not celebrate.
However, on Mardi Gras day, February 6, the headline on the front page of the New Orleans States read, “REVELERS TAKE OVER.” The Krewe of Hermes, the Krewe of Okeanos, and the Knights of Babylon were among those that paraded. And despite the cancellation by many of the older krewes, New Orleanians still thronged the streets. The Krewe of Patria held its first and only parade, a 20-float affair with the theme “The Freedoms.”
Police Union Strike: 1979
In late 1978 and early 1979, a disagreement between New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the city’s first Black mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, resulted in a police strike during the 1979 Carnival season, which prompted the major krewes to cancel their parades or relocate to the suburbs.
The Police Association of New Orleans (PANO) was angered by the mayor’s decision to hire Birmingham police chief James C. Parsons as police superintendent, rather than promoting from within; another grievance was a pay raise that actually hurt the police more than it helped them, by taking their sick days away. PANO demanded a new salary increase, but when the mayor refused to give in, the NOPD went on strike right before Mardi Gras, bringing the parade season to a screeching halt in Orleans Parish. With the NOPD on strike, several krewes canceled their parades outright, including Rex, Comus, and Zulu. Others, including Endymion, relocated to towns surrounding New Orleans—Kenner, Chalmette, Gretna, Mandeville, and Slidell.
Mardi Gras's Lastest Cancellation
When was the last time Mardi Gras was cancelled? Was it in 1992, when the New Orleans City Council passed their anti-discrimination ordinance, requiring krewes to admit members without regard to race, sex, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, age, or disability? Nope, only two krewes halted their parade over this.
Was it in 2006, when the city was still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005? Nope, the city showed their resilience that year. While the Carnival was smaller, balls were held and parades rolled, and for a moment, people can dance their worries away.
On November 17, 2020, the City of New Orleans announced that no parades would roll for Mardi Gras 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed, as of February 18, 2022, about 931,000 lives around the US. However, if the history of canceled Carnival has shown us anything, it’s that Mardi Gras is more than just big parades and fancy balls. It might decrease dramatically in scale, but the people of New Orleans will always find a way to celebrate—safely.