Mardi Gras Beginnings

Since Mardi Gras is cancelled in Orleans and St Tammany Parish this year, it seemed to be a good idea to keep the festivities alive by learning a bit more about our shared tradition.

As one might expect of a custom like Mardi Gras, its origins are rather hazy or, at least, more complicated than one might first imagine. When we think of Mardi Gras today, we think of the parades and pageantry of our Carnival season, but how did this start? What did the first Mardi Gras parade look like?

Let’s rewind the clock to Mardi Gras 1857, and the Krewe of Comus is throwing the first Mardi Gras parade (as we would surely recognize it). The celebration is small by today’s standard, with only 2 floats, but certain features are unmistakably familiar.

Alongside the floats, there are the people in masks and costumes, dressed according to the parade's theme—“The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Tapestries presented scenes based on that theme, much in the way some modern floats integrate giant screens into their procession today. And in the place of modern LED lights to dazzle onlookers, flambeaux–thick-wicked torches–lit up Comus and his moving throne, Lucifer and his volcano, and the masks of all the costumed marchers following close behind.

By 1857 other customs fell into place too, like the naming tradition of the pageant crew. A Greek name was chosen: Komos, the cupbearer and son of the Dionysus (himself the god of wine and ritual madness), seemed to be a good fit. They decidedly gave it “an Anglo twist” by spelling it Comus but kept the Greek spelling for "krewe," harkening back to the ancient tradition of carnival (Tassin and Stall 25).

The end result was nothing short of the captivating spectacle of merriment we know it to be today and perhaps even more so. For many in the crowd, this was an entirely new experience.

After all, it was the first ever Mardi Gras.

If you'd like to learn more about the history of Mardi Gras or about the ancient Greek and Roman gods many of our krewes are named after, we have plenty to offer!

For information on the history of Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras and Bacchus: Something Old, Something New, opens a new window by Myron Tassin and Gaspar Stall (1984) is a great place to start. From our reference collection, have a look at New Orleans Masquerade, opens a new window by Arthur Burton La Cour (1952) for more information on Comus.

If you'd like to read more about the Greek and Roman gods that have become a staple of Mardi Gras, search our online catalog here, opens a new window.

Or if you are interested in looking at historical photos of Mardi Gras, click on the Louisiana Digital Library, opens a new window on our database page!