Mardi Gras Spirit: The Play of Light and Dark

There’s no grander jubilation of the American South than Mardi Gras. Bedecked in faux jewels, rife with celebration and known for its rich food and lively indulgence, it’s certainly the season of festivities in New Orleans. But under the glam and pomp lies a history of racism and secret societies intended to divide. This dark mission has been far from successful, as the spirit of love consistently reigns supreme, illuminating the true soul of Mardi Gras.

Deep Roots: The True Spirit of Mardi Gras

Growing up in Louisiana, we didn't get spring break like most other students, we got the entire week of Mardi Gras off. It was known as a time for coming together to feast and congregate through decadent meals, merriment and being with those you love. For those who worked for the Krewes, the year's work finally came full circle as the opulent floats made their way down Canal and Bourbon Streets.

Aside from the nostalgia, my adult mind has grappled with mixed feelings toward Mardi Gras. A city filled with trash, known for over-indulgence and questionable behaviors isn't how I want to my home to be heralded. On a conscious path, I seek to rectify the yearnings of my heart and find the true spirit under the excess.

The History of Mardi Gras: More Than Just Revelry

Though the origins are hotly debated (Mobile, Alabama lays claim to the first documented festival), Mardi Gras’ place as a staple of Louisiana culture dates back to 1699 with the early New Orleans settlers.

Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is also known as Carnivale. The South American festivals are rich in their costumed revelry, while the American traditions have become famed for their parades.

It falls on the last day before Lent; a time to enjoy meat and wine before the austerity of the Easter season begins. Though the religious aspects are overshadowed by the modern customs, the truest roots of the season lie in the Catholic faith. Carnivale (Spanish for “farewell to meat”) became a final celebration of the flesh. Lavish costumes, festive music and feasting were endorsed on this day. The American traditions added a few elements — floats, the throwing of trinkets and the hardworking Krewes — but its longstanding traditions mirror revelry around the world.

Cajuns and Creoles

New Orleans is but one face of Mardi Gras gaining mass attention for its grandiose celebration. Yet smaller, more rural festivities still exist. In local parishes, wagons, truck beds and convertibles are acceptable substitutes to honor the traditions. It was in this vein I recall my fondest memories; not in the messy, alcohol-drenched streets, but through the open doors where neighbors offered enough food and drink to feed a village. “Get on in here, Boo, and grab yesself summin',” was the welcoming call of inclusion for which Cajuns are known.

But behind the extravagant display of decadence lies a system of secret societies rampant with elitism, power and racism. This is the uglier side of Mardi Gras with which I hope to make peace.

Krewes: Living Secret Societies

Krewes are the real reason for the season. A Krewe (pronounced “crew”) is an organization that puts on the parades, a nonprofit social club. It’s the Krewes who fund the parade, create the floats and sit atop their rolling thrones, tossing trinkets to bystanders.

Most are organized secret societies with access granted by invitation only. In Louisiana’s culture, participation in a Krewe is paramount to one's success and stature. In a city of vast cultural influence, those who gain power ensure their positions by banding together. Such was the claim early on, anyway. Businessmen, bankers, doctors and shopkeepers fill the protected rosters even today as it’s their combined influence that runs the city of N'awlins.

Some Krewes (those of Alabama and the legendary Krewe of Comus, among others) are known as “Mystic Societies,” further suggesting their ritualistic intent. It’s not a far reach to suggest the Krewes are the Illuminati of the South, guarding the great Mississippi River and her access to our nation's major waterways.

The Royal Court

Examining a list of active Krewes shows a vying for power and influence. Among the lesser known of the Krewes are the Mystic Krewe of the Druids, the Atlanteans and the High Priests of Mithras to name but a few. It’s a clear connection to Gods, Goddesses and mythic prominence to whom these groups wish to be associated.

Kings and queens, as well as a full royal court, are chosen each year. This flagrant display of power secures their position as the self-appointed rulers of their sphere of dominance. They adorn the floats in full regalia — expensive gowns, crowns and holding scepters — for the more extravagant the costumes, the more superiority they flaunt. Some suggest the tradition of proclaiming kings and queens (which began after the Civil War) was a way to establish white power over the changing mix of cultures. This practice still exerts its influence today; members of the old-line Krewes rank among the most prestigious and wealthy of the South.

Celebrities are also enlisted as Kings and Queens. Their appearance in the parades further bolsters the clout of the Krewes. Sworn to secrecy, Krewe members gather in concealed affluence and little is known about their actual practices. Grand balls and chosen royalty are their innermost ceremonies, while the outward presentation is witnessed through their parades.

The Parades: Masked Mayhem

Parties and balls throughout the season are the decadence of the Krewes. The season begins in early January and culminates on Fat Tuesday. Though many parades are hosted, it’s the oldest festivities which boast the fortune and prominence of the Krewes. The floats are crafted by master artists at great expense and act as a rolling dais of royal opulence. Masked and costumed, the members bare their prosperity in an anonymous show of prestige. As the Wren Festival of Southern Ireland, the anonymity often invites greater indiscretions.

“Throws” are the trinkets tossed from the floats. Doubloons (faux gold coins), garish beaded necklaces and special items unique to each Krewe are thrown to bystanders. The coconuts of Zulu and large medallioned necklaces are renowned finds, and grant the bestowed a temporary air of superiority simply by their possession.

There’s a price to pay for the gift, however, as attendees are asked to “earn the favor.” Legendary are people dancing, shouting or even kissing in exchange for the token. Perhaps most famed are women baring their breasts for cheap plastic baubles.

Sinners or Saints?

Since the inception of Mardi Gras, segregation was the norm. Many have noted the use of parades as a way of asserting racial and political statements intended to influence the city's population. It was only in 1992 that a city ordinance was passed banning segregation based on race alone. In a mighty show of defiance, several Krewes retired from their long parade runs and opted to carry out their affairs in private gatherings only.

From the earliest years, African American Krewes formed alongside the founding clubs gave a strong foothold to New Orleans' other most influential population. While African cultures practice Carnivale in many ways, the Momus and Zulu appear in the early 1900s, establishing their presence in the traditions of Mardi Gras. Zulu goes so far as to include stereotypical African characters (witch doctors, black face and African tribesmen) each year in their parade as a show of pride honoring their rich history.

Most Krewes aim to be a “charitable organization,” taking on projects to aid their communities. Though they claim a dedication to benevolence, their commitment to altruism is only truly known to its members. While nothing of Mardi Gras can be taken at face value, it’s the actions of its oldest Krewe which illuminate the true intent behind the revelry.

Krewe of Comus: The Bohemian Grove of the South

The Mystik Krewe of Comus is heralded as the first Krewe to parade, thus birthing the celebration as it’s now known. So too are they the biggest contributors to the taint of Mardi Gras.

Even the oldest documented accounts in Louisiana's society pages attribute mystery and curious practices to the Krewe. Members would appear from the dark night, parading through the city, appearing on the doorsteps of the mighty and powerful. By midnight they would disappear, leaving only the whisperings of their haunts. Comus is the God of revelry, festivities and nocturnal dalliances. He represents anarchy and chaos — rather fitting for the elite and powerful of the South.

Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans was the wealthiest city in America. Rich in natural resources (sugar, cotton, fertile land), with a warm climate, and easy access to the United States' most major waterway, the mighty Mississippi River, New Orleans was ripe for domination. Of course, this locale would be a desired stronghold in the South for the wealthy and influential to take control. Several sources connect the Krewe of Comus with Illuminati families and even the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The ball and parade themes from the earliest of years were created to exert their flagrant show of power:

  • 1857 – The Demon Actors of Paradise Lost
  • 11873 - The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of the Species
  • 11877 – The Aryan Race
  • 11891 – Demonology
  • 11930 – The Legend of Faust

What can be observed directly in the parades harkens to Luciferian rites we have witnessed from the Illuminati. What better place to hide an elaborate ritual than out in the open, lavishly cheered on by clamoring average citizens? The parades act as the perfect disguise for their reenacted rites of passage.

The Play of Light and Dark

Despite the questionable intent behind Mardi Gras, something quite delightful has arisen alongside its dark underpinnings. Where there is dark, there is also light.

The radiance of Mardi Gras is the jubilee and the ardor of the celebration, which in its very essence, is pure love.

To be sure, it’s a Bacchanalian festival fitting of its mythic monikers, yet the magic of New Orleans comes to life through rich cultural inclusion. In a town such as New Orleans, a melting pot of African, French and Spanish influences, any festivity which unites an entire society is unique. The light and dark cohabitate and in one glorious season, there is nothing to hide. The city hums with electric supernatural charm, and you know you’re partaking in a something extraordinary.

Come as you are and you will be loved. Granted, celebration can get a bit freaky, but somehow in the vein of the sublime, nothing is off limits.

The exerted influence of the Krewes is no doubt present, but so too are the voices of the masses. Aspiring dance troupes, lively marching bands and enthusiastic social activists proudly offer their dedicated efforts to the crowd. Elaborate floats reveal the devotion of passionate artists at the top of their craft. Mardi Gras is a gluttony of the senses and this decadence of the flesh is perfectly appropriate. Simply put, everyone loves Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras loves everyone.

What I’ve come to appreciate is the real reason Mardi Gras is so magical: It's a time to gather, to honor and celebrate the bounty before the sacrifices of Lent. Regardless of religion, politics or agenda, Mardi Gras is a time of love and inclusion, offering an opportunity to feel truly blessed.

Be grateful, be you and know you are love.

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