Mardi Gras' Beginning

Mardi Gras is the celebration that takes place the day before Ash Wednesday which is the beginning of the Lenten season. The term Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. It is the celebration of the reversal of social order that society is in the rest of the year. This reversal is done by the costumes that the participants wear; rich dress as poor, and poor dress as rich; men dress as women, and women dress as men; blacks dress as whites, and whites dress as blacks. People also dress up as politicians, monsters, celebrities, and anything else they could imagine. The reversal is also achieved by the way they act. during the rest of the year, people act calm and reserved, but on Mardi Gras, people can act however they want and not be judged for it.

the Zulu Mardi Gras Queen. it was worn by Desiree Rodgers
a Mardi Gras Mad Hatter parade costume

Mardi Gras in Rural Cajun Towns
fiddlers on a Mardi Gras run

One of the most important and iconic traditions in Mardi Gras is the parade, or in rural Cajun towns, runs. Originally the run was a way of collecting food for the communal gumbo that would be served that night. The run is lead by a captain, who who is often riding a horse and bearing a flag, and there are also a group of players who instinctivly know the rules, and keep the runners on the main mission. The captain leads the parade members from house to house, or local establishments in the town. At each stop, the parade runners must either dance, or beg to the owner of the house. They will then be given an ingredient of gumbo. Sometimes a house would give a live chicken to the parade members. The resident of the house would throw the chicken into the air, and the members of the Mardi Gras parade would chase after it. It is considered a right of passage to catch the chicken and break its neck. The chicken can be already dead and cut up when it is given to the parade members, but that is not as popular as the live chicken.

Communal Gumbo

When the Parade is over, the ingredients that were collected are gathered up and taken to be made into gumbo. When the Gumbo is complete, it is served to everyone in the town. The entire town gathers in the local banquet hall. The parade runners usually go to the banquet hall and eat the gumbo in their costumes.

a typical costume of a Mardi Gras runner

Zulu and African American Mardi Gras

During the days of segregation, Mardi Gras had grown in popularity in New Orleans. Of course, blacks were not allowed to participate in the white Mardi Gras parades, so they decided to start their own. in 1909, the social aid and pleasure club named Zulu was formed. In the beginning, Zulu was more aimed at the pleasure aspect of their club. During the parades, the paraders would do the same traditions that the white paraders would do, but in a mocking fashion. they would name a Mardi Gras King or queen, and the King or Queen would be wearing clothes similar to the Kings and Queens of Africa. In 1949, famous musician and New Orleans personality, Louis Armstrong was named the Zulu Mardi Gras King.

The Zulu coconut

The Zulu coconut is a famous tradition during Mardi Gras. they are hand painted and were thrown out during the parade as souvenirs. Although no one is sure when the tradition was started, it is believed that it was around the 1910's.
the stages of making a Zulu coconut

Zulu Mardi Gras Queen

From the years 1923 to 1933, the Zulu queen was actually a masked man. This was following the normal Mardi Gras tradition of a member of one sex dressing as the other. However, in 1933, The Ladies Auxiliary was formed and the Zulu started to chose women to be queen from this club. This tradition continued until 1970, but many of the traditions that the Ladies Auxiliary set are still used in current Zulu Mardi Gras parades.

Community Service

In 1916, the Zulu club became the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. This was following in the footsteps of many other African-American charitable orginazations that helped to improve life in New Orleans. The Zulu club participated in The Adopt a School Program, and had raised funds for the United Way, sickle cell anemia research, and for scholarships to historically black Colleges. They work with local Holiday Food Basket Programs during the holiday season to provide food for needy families. They even host the annual Night out Against Crime with the New Orleans Police Department.
the Zulu Banner

The Debutantes and The Mardi Gras Ball

The Mardi Gras Ball is one of the oldest and most prestigious traditions in Mardi Gras. In fact, the older the ball is, the more Prestigious the Ball is and the more exclusive the guest list is. The tradition is that every year when a young woman turns 21, she becomes eligible to be a Debutant. A Debutant is a young woman that is accepted into society. Out of these Debutants, one of them is chosen to be queen. She is first shown to the public as the Mardi Gras Queen during the parade.
the 1892 Comus Queen and her court

The Queen's Journey

Usually, the Mardi Gras queen is chosen a year in advance. During the time between when she is chosen and Mardi Gras, she has to prepare herself for the role as Queen. During the course of the year, she will learn how to walk, how to wave, how to hold the scepter, and generally how to move like a Mardi Gras Queen. only she, her immediate family, and the dressmaker knows that she is the queen. The dress that is made specifically for this queen will take more time to make than prom dresses or wedding gowns. Before the Queen can be introduced as a queen, she must be first introduced as a debutant. The Debutant Ball is usually a month Before Mardi Gras, and it introduces the women who have come of age in the past year to society. After this ball, the Debutants are invited to many social gatherings to welcome them into the community.

Racial Exclusion

Many of the older and more prestegious groups have been around since the times of segregation. Not only did many of these groups exclude African-Americans, they also excluded Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews. This continued until 1990 when the Lousiana state government forced the groups to let people of different ethnic backgrounds into the groups. If the groups refused, they would not be allowed to be a part of the Mardi Gras Parade. Out of all of the groups that were questioned in this hearing, only three refused to allow people of different backgrounds in as members, and stopped marching in the parade. Although the other groups did say they would, not many people from different ethnic groups have been admitted.
Crowns and scepters of past Mardi Gras Kings and Queens

Dance for a chicken
Dry Wood- Mardi Gras
for the video on Mardi Gras, go to:
video- Dry Wood
For more information on Zulu, go to:
Tramps to Kings
the information on the Debutants came from the documentary "By invitation Only" to look at the site and buy or rent the video, go to:
By Invitation Only