What is Mardi Gras?

by F. Edward Hebert, City Editor of The New Orleans States newspaper
(Mr. Hebert later went on to become the longest-serving member of
the U. S. House of Representatives from Louisiana, 1941-1977.)

This article was included in a booklet prepared for the Krewe
of Babylon's carnival ball in 1940.
What is Mardi Gras?

  The New Orleans Mardi Gras is the most widely known celebration in the world, and at the
same time, the most misunderstood.
  Contrary to general belief, the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is not confined only to
the weekend before the Lenten season.  It actually begins the twelfth night after Christmas,
and continues until midnight before Ash Wednesday.
  The New Orleans carnival season is made up of a group of organizations known as
"Krewes" which present magnificent pageants for their members.  Each admittance is by
personal invitation only.  In all instances only members of the organization participate in the
"maskers" dances.  As the season progresses, the balls grow more brilliant and elaborate,
finally blazing forth in a series of street pageants.
  These street pageants, starting on the Wednesday before Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi
Gras day, are the only public celebrations of the New Orleans Mardi Gras.  It is undoubtedly
because of these public presentations that only these closing days have been accepted by
the uninformed as the New Orleans Mardi Gras.
  In New Orleans, the spirit of Mardi Gras follows from the cradle to the grave and the falling
torch of each dying generation is grabbed by the eager hands of the succeeding one and
carried to newer and greater heights of glory.
  The most important children's organization is the Krewe of Nor, which stages its own
parade on the Saturday before Mardi Gras day and includes all public and parochial school
  The major men's organizations which stage street pageants in connection with their balls
are Babylon, Momus, Hermes, Proteus, Rex and Comus.
  Men's organizations which do not have street pageants, but which have colorful balls, are
Dorian, Harlequins, Olympians, Twelfth Night Revelers, Caliphs of Cairo, Krewe of Cynthius,
Bardsof Bohemia, Nereus, Eros, Osiris, Athenians, Mithras, Prophets of Persia, Oberon,
Atlanteans, Mystery, Melsom and the Mystic Club.
  Women's organizations, none of which stage street pageants, are the krewes of Pan,
Hypathians, Aparomest, Iridis, Noblad, Iris and Les Marionettes.
  The cost of staging a New Orleans Mardi Gras is borne principally by the individual
members of the various organizations.
  Each organization has its own king and queen.  In the men's organizations, the identity of
the king is never revealed, except Rex, king of the carnival.  Likewise, in the women's
organizations, the identity of the queen is never revealed.
  The subject of the New Orleans Mardi Gras is one which cannot be covered adequately in
an article so limited as this.  A description of the various carnival balls, the traditions behind
each presentation, the manner of conduct, and the hundred and more diversified
connections with the Mardi Gras celebration could fill volumes.
  One thing is certain about the New Orleans Mardi Gras, there is nothing like it anywhere in
the Universe.  Nowhere has a people been able to capture the spirit of the New Orleans
Mardi Gras except here in New Orleans.  There are many imitators, but there are none who
can emulate the New Orleans Mardi Gras with its unexcelled tradition and spirit.
  There is only one sound advice to offer the visitor in connection with the New Orleans
Mardi Gras and that is to abandon care and sorrow for the moment and be caught in the
unrestrained joy and celebration because on the morrow will be donned the sack cloth and
ashes of the Lenten season.
  We, in New Orleans, pride ourselves on knowing how to play and how to work.  We play
hard, and we work hard.  Each has its place in the make-up of our daily lives.  The Mardi
Gras season is the season of play.  We invite you to enjoy our fun.  That's the New Orleans
Mardi Gras.
Some things have changed since this was written in 1940.  Several of the
organizations mentioned have disappeared and many more have been formed.
(And there are now women's carnival organizations which hold parades.)
But, more than 70 years ago, he wrote, "Nowhere else has a people been
able to capture the spirit of the New Orleans Mardi Gras."  And I'm
convinced that those words still hold true today.  -- Nancy