Recently, my wife and I attended the 12th Night celebration at the Civic Center, which marks the start of Mardi Gras season. It was quite a show.
Lake Charles has the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana, with more than 6,000 revelers organized in 60 to 65 krewes, plus numerous events leading up to the big Krewe of Krewes Parade down Ryan Street, with more than 100 floats, on Fat Tuesday.
The image most people around the country have of Mardi Gras is that of the raucous and raunchy crowds that pack the French Quarter of New Orleans. But Mardi Gras in Lake Charles has developed as a family-oriented celebration, with events such as the Children’s Parade, the Krewe of Barkus parade with its costumed dogs, a gumbo cook-off and the Taste de la Louisiane food fest.
Riding down Ryan Street on a parade float throwing beads to the crowd, one is far more likely to see families with young children than drunken revelers. I’ve done it a dozen times, and have yet to see a young lady expose her upper attributes while hollering “throw me some beads, mister.” But I’m still hoping.
If you’re not familiar with the origin of Mardi Gras, it has its roots in the pagan rituals of ancient Rome, such as Februa, from which the month of February gets its name. These celebrations involved feasting, drinking and debauchery. But as Christianity displaced paganism, the Catholic Church consolidated these traditional pagan spring rites into a morally constrained prelude to the 40 days of Lent and fasting that commemorate the 40 days Christ spent fasting in the wilderness.
These festivals were known as “carnivals,” a word derived from the Latin words “carn,” meaning “flesh,” and “levare,” which means “to put away.” In the age before refrigeration, freezers and canning, people gathered up all their meat, eggs, milk and cheese and other forbidden food and consumed it in a big feast prior to Ash Wednesday.
Old traditions die hard, and some of these carnivals continued to exhibit traits of the old pagan rituals.
In French-speaking Louisiana, the carnival is known as Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday” in French. The event is celebrated differently in rural areas than it is in New Orleans. In Cajun communities, it’s called Courir de Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday Run”), and is celebrated with partying and by people in purple, green and yellow masks and costumes chasing chickens, pigs and other edible creatures on foot, on horseback, and, today, on ATVs. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is celebrated with formal masquerade balls, street parades with beads and other objects thrown from elaborate floats (the Krewe of Zulu throws hand-painted coconuts) and a good deal of public debauchery.
There is little structure to Mardi Gras activities; Mardi Gras is essentially a big month-long party put on by private groups from all ethnic and social backgrounds that are known as “krewes” (pronounced “crews”). Anyone can start a krewe, but to be officially recognized, a krewe must pay $60 to register with the Secretary of State of Louisiana. But there are no consistent rules a krewe must follow; most have a royal court, host a Mardi Gras ball for their members and guests, and decorate a float for the parade on Fat Tuesday from which their members throw beads and trinkets to the crowds.
Among the 59 official krewes in Southwest Louisiana, there’s a great deal of variety in how they select their royal court; how much they spend on costumes; and what type of ball they have — formal, informal or invitation only. Most have kings and queens and dukes and duchesses. But some have all-male courts; some have all-female courts; some spend a ton of money on the costumes and decorations, while some spend sparingly; most have formal invitation-only balls, but some have casual balls open to the public; some have mostly older members (40+), while others seek younger members; some are only active during Mardi Gras season, while others have parties and get-togethers throughout the year; and some engage in community and charitable activities. Whatever your preference, there’s probably a krewe for it. And if there isn’t, you can start one for it. (“Krewe de les économistes anciens” anyone?)
The Krewe of Krewes in an umbrella organization that coordinates the activities of the individual krewes so they don’t schedule their balls and pageants on the same night. It also organizes the Krewe of Krewes parade.
Mardi Gras of Southwest Louisiana is a separate corporation that sponsors and organizes the public Mardi Gras activities. Some local governments may expend public funds for Mardi Gras activities, such as police escorts for the parades and crews to clean-up afterwards. But they also benefit from the publicity generated by these events and the tax revenue from the spending of those attending the events.
In 2013, Dan Groft and I did an economic impact study for the Tourist Bureau and Mardi Gras of Southwest Louisiana. We estimated that more than 98,000 people attended Mardi Gras events and parades that year. But Fat Tuesday fell on Feb. 12, so most of the events were in early February when the weather was rainy and in the mid-60s. Last year, Fat Tuesday fell on Feb. 28, when the weather was beautiful and the crowds were probably twice as large.
This year, Mardi Gras falls on Feb. 13, and it is anybody’s guess right now what the weather will be like. But even if it is chilly and damp, you can still attend the indoor events in comfort. And remember, the fewer people lining the street for the parades, the more beads one is likely to grab … So, if the weather is really bad, you might have to rent a truck to haul all your loot. So, rain or shine, Laissez les bons temps rouler!