Though Shrove Tuesday had been celebrated in earlier days the first “official” New Orleans Mardi Gras took place in 1833. It was very much a “creole-style” celebration sponsored by Bernard de Marigny, a fascinating Creole nobleman, playboy, planter, politician, duelist, writer, land developer, and gambler. Parades were more street parties than parades as we know them. They were free-form, rowdy and on more than on occasion violent affairs and over the next 20 years there were constant appeals to shut Mardi Gras down on “moral” grounds.
Things were to change in December 1856 when six Anglo-American businessmen, originally from Mobile, met at Dr. Pope’s Drug Store to discuss celebrating Mardi Gras in a manner less crude and more formal then its Creole predecessors. At the beginning of January 1857 they invited a select group of men to join a “secret” society or Krewe to plan a parade and tableaux ball for Shrove Tuesday. That day the Mistick Krewe of Comus was born and what had been a free-wheeling Creole-Catholic celebration was taken over by Anglo-American Protestants. Their name was taken from John Milton’s Lord of Misrule in his 1634 masque Comus. This rather erudite choice was to be reflected in the esoteric themes of the parades and tableaux balls the Krewe was to present over the next century and a half.
At 9 pm on the night of Mardi Gras 1857 Comus burst upon the scene. There had been some anticipation following announcements in the press of a special event to take place on Shrove Tuesday evening by a secret society of revellers. In the few weeks between January 10th and February 24th they had put together a parade and tableaux ball in their “secret” den. To the sound of a martial band and illuminated by torches Comus greeted the amazed onlookers from his throne high atop one of two floats. On the other Satan and his cohorts set the theme: “The Demon Actors of Milton’s Paradise Lost.” They were followed by maskers in all forms of demonic and satanic masks and costumes. It was a revelation that was to set the standard for parades to come.
The procession made its way to the Gaiety Theatre were an exclusive group of guests were entertained at tableaux ball with scenes representing “Types from the Infernal Regions” based on passages from Milton’s epic poem. It was followed by dancing and an elaborate meal to bring Mardi Gras 1857 to a close.
In 1956 Comus celebrated their 100th anniversary by saluting the birth of Comus and eleven of the Krewes that were to form and parade in their wake: Our early contemporaries. It should be noted that many of those “contemporaries” had close links to Comus and its members.
new Orleans – February 14th 1956
It’s evening on February 14th 1956 and the traditional time for the last parade of Mardi Gras: the Krewe of Comus. Comus is celebrating its 100th anniversary by saluting the birth of Comus and eleven of the Krewes that were to form and parade in their wake. Let’s settle into our balcony viewing point on Canal Street; unfortunately we were a bit late getting through the crowds and missed Comus himself but we’re in time to catch the float announcing this year’s theme: Our Early Contemporaries.
(And reminder that a left click will open a slideshow of the floats in that group.)
The first floats celebrate the founding of the “secret society”, the birth of Comus and that first Parade.
It was to be thirteen years before another Krewe appeared on the scene: the 12th Night Revellers. You may remember I wrote about them back in 2019. They first paraded in 1870 but in 1877 became a ball only Krewe. Not so the School of Design – better known as REX. Organized by a group of businessmen in 1872 to honour the visit of Grand Duke Alexei of Russia it was to become perhaps one of the best known of the parade organizations. Though Rex is the King of Mardi Gras each year he and his court pay their respects to Comus at the Meeting of the Courts. Founded the same year The Knights of Momus paraded regularly until 1991. Often their satirical look at the world got them into trouble with both local and nationals authorities. They were one of three historic Krewes, along with Comus and Proteus, that withdrew from parading because of a city ordinance that required them to reveal their membership and to certify that it did not discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. . The Phunny Phorty Phellows were founded in 1878 as a satirical Krewe and paraded on January 6th for 20 years. They then took an 83 year sabbatical returning in 1981 to celebrate the first day of Carnival. Rather than parading on floats they ride the Charles Avenue streetcar line in costumed splendour, throwing trinkets to onlookers and toasting carnival in high fashion.
The Krewe of Proteus was founded in 1882 as an off-shot of Comus and Momus. The waiting lists for membership on the two older Krewes were too long. Proteus parades have been amongst the most elaborate over the years. Though they too stopped parading in 1992 because of the city ordinance they returned to their traditional spot on Lundi Gras, the second last night of Carnival, in 2000. The Atlanteans (1891) and Elves of Oberon (1895) were founded as non-parading Krewes, their sole purpose being to stage debutante balls for New Orleans society, which they both do to this day.
The Krewe of Nereus was founded in 1896 and for several years limited its Mardi Gras celebrations to a popular bal masque. However in 1900 they did stage an elaborate parade mounting the tableaux on trolley cars and illuminating them with electric lights. Unfortunately the parade was fraught with delays, electrical failure and breakdowns. Nereus quietly retired from the parade scene. The High Priests of Mithras (1897), another non-parading Krewe, came out of disagreement amongst members of the newly formed Krewe of Consus (1897) over who should be elected Queen. Disgruntled members broke away to form a non-parading Krewe which still stages its debutante balls to this day. Consus was not as fortunate. Founded by sons of krewemen of the older Krewes they sought to produced the most elaborate and innovative tableaux. However they got a bit too “innovative” and their 10th ball was to be their last. Frontinback and Upondown with gentlemen showing their backs to ladies during call out dances proved an affront to many of the ladies present and lead to many resignations. There was to be no 11th Mardi Gras for Consus. Other than the fact that they were founded in 1900 I have been able to find out very little about the Falstaffians. It would appear that they were active before the First World War and disappear at its onset.
The Mistick Krewe of Comus is now in its 156th year however is no longer the final parade of Mardi Gras. Along with Momus and Proteus, discontinued its parades in 1992 in protest to the City ordinance. Though that ordinance was struck down as unconstitutional Comus choose to remain a non-parading Krewe.
The idiom for February 16th is:
By hook or by crook
By any means necessary.
The idiom appears for the first time in John Wycliffe’s Conversational Tracts in 1380. Though the origin are obscure it has been suggested that it comes from the customs regulating which firewood local people could take from common land. They were allowed to take any branches that they could reach with a billhook or a shepherd’s crook.
One day I will go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans by hook or by crook.