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Beer and Disrobing in New Orleans: Mardi Gras


by Casey Dewey
Feb. 11, 2013
Quick! What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words Mardi Gras? I’m sure your mind went straight to drunk revelers baring their breasts in exchange for beaded necklaces on the streets of New Orleans. That’s immediately what I think of anyways. There’s a method to all the madness however, and we have to travel back to the 17th century to get to the root of what is probably the strangest party that’s become an annual and damn-near respectable event.

In a move that would make Andrew W.K. proud, French settlers took a look at their new treacherous surroundings in the bayou and said “fuck it, let’s party hard.” It was Carnival time and the next day was Ash Wednesday, the day the good Catholics and Christians smudge an ashy stamp on their foreheads to signify they’re mourning and turning their backs on sin. Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the period of time you give up eating meat, drinking 64-oz sodas and masturbating to internet porn up until Easter. Such is what I gather from various Facebook posts anyways, I’m a non-practicing Catholic who only goes to church when a friend marries or dies.

Before Ash Wednesday is Fat Tuesday, the climax of a week of getting blotto and what we know as Mardi Gras. Getting back to the French explorers, they settled on a patch of land near New Orleans and right off the Mississippi River. Their leader dubbed it “La Pointe du Mardi Gras” and the party was born. The parties and parades of costumed revelers went on each year, sometimes the law came down on the fun, other times they went on freely. Next time you’re puking on the streets of the French Quarter, be sure to thank Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, the wealthy plantation owner who footed the bill to make sure Mardi Gras became an official celebration.

In 1857, the party crew with a most ominous and scary name, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, held it’s first parade during the Mardi Gras celebration. The MKC is the oldest krewe still active and participating in the parade today. Formed by wealthy Anglo-Americans, the organization wanted to put a stop to all that lewd and lascivious behavior from the French and carry on on a more proper, English fashion, which meant bringing torches, marching bands and rolling floats. It proved popular, and visitors from miles around kept coming year after year to check it out.

1875 saw Mardi Gras becoming a legal holiday in the state of Louisiana, and green, purple and gold became the official colors of the parade. Depending on who you ask the colors either stand for “faith, justice and power” or they just look great when your head is spinning and your eyeballs are pinned back to your skull. As I stated earlier, this holiday is goofy and comes with its own set of rules and customs. Like, you’re not allowed to wear costumes and masks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Corporate sponsors are prohibited to peddle their wares during the festivities, and con men line up to sell unsuspecting rubes “tickets” to the non-admission parade.

Social clubs are a big part of the parade, and the Rex and Zulu clubs are the largest and most well-known participants. The Zulu krewe is largely African-American, the Rex krewe is mostly Anglo-Americans with heavy French descent. They both host social balls and “king and queen” parties before Fat Tuesday. The Zulu krewe, built out of their prohibition from Rex, named New Orleans favorite son Louis Armstrong as their king in 1949. Take that, whitey! Krewes throw “doubloons” at the crowds from their various floats during the parade. Doubloons are the coins dipped in the festive colors, usually etched with the krewe name, year, and theme of the party.

The Mardi Gras Indians, the most flamboyant krewe in the most flamboyant party, date back to the 19th century. They’re the revelers in those crazy chicken suits that are usually 100 pounds and take more than a year to prepare. In their procession they have positions and titles like “spyboys” in “running suits” who scope out the route and check for any danger; the “first flag” is the person flying their Native colors and symbols; the “wildman” carries a weapon and protects the “Big Chief”, who directs the parade wherever the fuck he wants and chooses to either ignore or “fight” any other tribes along the route. By fighting, I’m talking about a classic drum ‘n’ dance off between the two. I told you this party is wacky!<

Ok, so what about the tits? Women baring their chests at Mardi Gras for trinkets dates to the late 1800s, if not earlier. What do you think happens when an entire town is drinking and partying on? People like to disrobe. Have you been to New Orleans? Shit is humid! In this day of camcorders and cell phone cameras, Mardi Gras boob websites are a dime a dozen and a voyeur's delight. It’s a novelty act, and mostly regulated by the tourists and screaming frat boys who descend upon New Orleans like a herd of horny goats.

Like the end of any good party, cleanup is a bitch. After the “Meeting of the Courts”, when all of the krewes descend upon a masked ball and revel with the King and Queen, the stroke of midnight hits and New Orleans’ finest take to the streets on horses and clear everybody out. This is when Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday, when God doesn’t want to see anymore of your knockers and doubloons spilling out of your devilish costumes. Tons of trash are picked up the next day by hungover sanitation workers with ashy smudges on their forehead, dreaming of next year's’ parties on Bourbon Street and beyond.

http://www.carnaval.com/cityguides/neworleans/history.htm

http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history.html

Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.