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CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Contributing Writer

Mardi Gras, that rowdy celebration, has been riding piggyback on the Catholic Church’s Lenten celebration for almost 2,000 years. Known as Carnival in most other parts of the world, the celebration has its roots in Rome where solid upstanding citizens let loose to party with the “Hoi Polloi” – or the common people.

Origins of the Celebration

In the Roman celebration, public business was put aside, moral codes were loosened, people put on costumes, gave gifts and feasted, and masters and slaves exchanged places. The obscene dancing and costuming at Mardi Gras that offends some today would fit right in with the Roman idea of a good time.

The Catholic Church, although it never really supported Carnival, tolerated it. Since the pagan spring festivals go far back into prehistory, it wouldn’t have been wise to try to stop them. (Some say an early resemblance to Mardi Gras can be traced as far back as 5,000 years, when the people of Greece celebrated the coming of Spring with a festival of feasts and orgies. This festival was practiced by all, Kings and commoners alike.)

The early Roman celebration was passed on to the French, and when the first French settlers came to Louisiana, they brought with them this ancient custom. Further adjustments followed over the years, creating the unique festive tradition known as Mardi Gras in Louisiana.

Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. This festival is celebrated each year on the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season. Mardi Gras season begins January sixth, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, the day the Magi brought gifts to infant Jesus. Celebrations for the carnival season gains in momentum from that day through Fat Tuesday when the climax is reached with more gaiety, more celebrating, more feasting than is experienced anywhere else in the world. 

Here are some additional things about Mardi Gras as we begin the celebration this year:

Louisiana’s Mardi Gras

The first Mardi Gras in Louisiana was celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, March 3, 1699, thirty miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi River when Iberville staked a claim on lands of Louisiana in the name of the King of France. He and a handful of men celebrated Mardi Gras on a bleak piece of land along the river that they named Mardi Gras Point. A few years later in 1703 early French settlers in the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated Fat Tuesday with soirees (informal balls) and festive gatherings.

Lundi Gras

The Monday immediately before Mardi Gras Day, also called Lundi Gras, “Fat Monday,” or “Shrove Monday” holds its own traditions and celebrations. However, that celebration did not really get recognized until the late 1980s.  Prior to 1987, Monday was typically a day of rest, a welcomed break between the weekend and Mardi Gras Day.

Mardi Gras Balls, Krewes and Masking

The first formal ball was held in New Orleans in 1743 by the governor, Maraquis de Vandreuil. This was the beginning of yearly celebrations with elaborate balls throughout the carnival season. Parades and street masking along with many private parties and street revelers were added through the years.

The Krewes (social Mardi Gras clubs) were organized as early as 1820. Street masking on Mardi Gras in New Orleans began when people first started masquerading for the balls, traveling to and from them on the streets, often numbering in the hundreds. This eventually led to great street parties, some of the revelers never arriving at the intended balls.

The Parade

The first organized parade was formed by the Krewe of Comus in 1837; this was the Krewe that brought such good taste and drama to the balls and also created the first night parade in 1857. In 1884, Comus gave Mardi Gras its first queen, Mildred Lee, daughter of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Prior to this only Kings reigned over Mardi Gras events. The featured photograph at the top shows one of the many Mardi Gras floats used for the Rex Parade in New Orleans in 1907. (Historic postcard from Carola Lillie Hartley collection.)

The Colors of Mardi Gras – • Purple • Green • Gold

The Mardi Gras colors were selected as early as 1872 for the first Rex parade in honor of Grand Duke Alexis. The Purple stands for “justice”, the Green for “faith”, and the Gold for “power.” 

The Throws and Doubloons

The custom of “throws” (Mardi Gras Beads, etc.) from floats began in 1871. The Twelfth Night Revelers parade had for its theme “Mother Goose Rhymes,” and in it was Santa Clause. This jolly gentleman had trinkets that he dug out of his bag and threw to the crowds. Although these were only cheap ornaments it created such excitement that it was forever afterward adopted by float riders in all parades. The tradition of Mardi Gras doubloons began in 1960 when the Krewe of Rex minted the first such throw that has been a popular item not only for parades, but also added the new dimension of doubloon collecting.

The King Cake

The origin of the King Cake has been traced back to France where in its earliest forms it was apparently related to fertility. The cake is so named because it’s traditionally eaten starting on January 6, known in different countries as the day of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or King’s Day. Originally, the cake contained a bean, then a ceramic baby and now a plastic baby, all pointing back to a time when people hoped the crops would sprout and babies would be born.

Courier du Mardi Gras

There is a real difference between the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the celebration that takes place in the rural area of south Louisiana. Known as the “Courier du Mardi Gras,” or the running of the Mardi Gras, these celebrations occur on Mardi Gras Day in area communities like Mamou, Church Point and Ville Platte. The Courier du Mardi Gras is more like the older way of celebrating. This male only event begins very early in the morning on Mardi Gras Day. Revelers gather at the meeting place, then go by horseback from farm to farm, collecting chickens and other ingredients, used to make a community gumbo at the end of the day. The revelers are masked. They dance around, acting crazy, chasing the chickens, having a real bon temps (good time). At the end of the day, men, women and children gather in the downtown, eating gumbo, drinking, dancing to Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop music and just having fun.

A Good Time

It is hard to write and describe to others what Mardi Gras is really like. In fact, it is almost impossible to do. You must experience Mardi Gras firsthand to really understand the celebration. Mardi Gras can best be described by these few words: Laisser bon temps rouler (let the good times roll!)

Mardi Gras In Opelousas

Over the years, Opelousas did celebrate the holiday, some years more than others. On March 4, 1883, the three Opelousas fire companies organized a Mardi Gras Parade in Opelousas. According to the St. Landry Democrat newspaper, the parade started at 10am from the Court House square, to Landry street, from Landry to Main, up Main as far as the Catholic church, from Main to Union, down Union as far as Dr. Hadden’s ; from Union to Main, up Main to Landry, from Landry to Court, up Court as far as Sol. Firberg’s store, from Court to Market and back to the engine house. (what a route). Also the Opelousas Steam Fire Company No. 1 held a Grand Calico Ball at Perrodin’s Hall on February 4, 1883.

A Mardi Gras Ball was held in Opelousas in 1893. Sponsored by the Opelousas Social Club, the masked ball was held at the club hall on Mardi Gras night, Tuesday, February 14, 1893. Music for the ball was provided by Professor Halphen. The Opelousas Social Club held another ball on Mardi Gras night, Tuesday, February 6, 1894. In 1898, Opelousas had a great Mardi Gras Parade for the first time in many years, with several thousand in attendance. After that year, there was no real celebration of Mardi Gras in Opelousas except a Masquerade Ball held at the Sandoz Opera House in 1901 and 1902.

In 1903, a great carnival celebration was held on Mardi Gras Day, Tuesday, February 24. The population of Opelousas at that time was just barely 5,000, however it was tripled on that day as the celebration attracted 15,000 additional people to the old town to view the spectacular production. Hotels were filled and eating establishments were crowded. Excursion trains bound for Opelousas were over-crowded and running late. The town was alive and buzzing for the great celebration. Newspapers in Opelousas and throughout the state described the event as the “grandest affair ever held in Opelousas.”

Morning dawned on 1903 Mardi Gras day with a beautiful sunrise. It was a blessing to be sure as it had rained almost daily for weeks prior to the event, flooding some of the downtown. But somehow the streets were dry on that day, and it was easy to get around.

The arrangements committee for this Mardi Gras was like no other. The town had really come together to produce an event to make Opelousas proud. And they did! Reports by visiting press from throughout the state claimed next to carnivals held in New Orleans, this was one of the best ever held in Louisiana.

The carnival celebration started the day before with the arrival of the masked king and queen on the afternoon train. A procession led the royal couple from the train depot to their palace, situated on the courthouse square in downtown, where the mayor and other officials met them.  John W. Lewis, on behalf of the town, surrendered the keys of the city to the king. Carnival rides, games and other activities surrounded the royal palace, providing fun for the festive crowd of locals and thousands from out of town. That party lasted well into the night.

The celebration in downtown continued Mardi Gras day, with more activities centered around the courthouse square. At about noon, the parade was started, running from the Catholic Church to downtown. Horses and mules pulled eight professionally made floats in the parade, manufactured by the Deutchmann Brothers of New Orleans. One of the floats carried King Palmetto II, whose name was still not known. Other parade entries included the Robinson Brass Band, the St. Landry Wonder Band and the Opelousas Pelican Band. There were many marching groups as well as other musical groups and homemade floats including one with a giant live bull, depicting a slaughterhouse scene (Not sure how pleasant that was!). And of course, there were clowns and frolicking marchers. The parade, viewed by thousands of people, made its way into the downtown and ended near the courthouse square, where the party continued.

Horses and mules pulled eight professionally made floats in the parade, manufactured by the Deutchmann Brothers of New Orleans.

The parade got great reviews with some saying it was one of the best they had ever seen. The only problem that the parade created was with some lines for the Bertha Telephone Company. It seems some of those lines were rather low, and one of the elaborate floats cut one or two of them as the parade passed the convent school. But as the celebration was happening, no one seemed to mind that there was no phone service in town for a while.

The merriment kept going into the night, ending with the grand Mardi Gras Ball held at the Sandoz Opera House on Main Street in downtown. The house was filled to capacity, and in some accounts even overflowing.

At nine o’clock the curtain rose to a beautiful sight. The King, in rich royal costume, sat on the throne, with his court forming an outer circle and the maids of honor an inner circle around His Majesty. The court, dressed in dazzling costumes, swayed to and fro as the curtain rose, and until the Queen was escorted to the King and crowned.

As the Queen was crowned and ascended the throne, both the Monarch and his fair Queen simultaneously unmasked. There was no mistake as to who they were– the vast crowd at once recognized handsome and popular Frank Charleville as King Palmetto II and the sweet and beautiful Miss Pearl Harmonson as his Queen. The audience erupted in loud and continuous applause. As the St. Landry Clarian reported the next Saturday, “Everything went on so nicely and harmoniously, from the time the beautiful Queen was crowned by the handsome King until the last couple left the hall with the dying notes of “Home Sweet Home” sounding in their ears like the parting fare”

Frank Charleville – King Palmetto II for the 1903 Opelousas Mardi Gras Celebration
Pearl Harmanson – Queen of 1903 Opelousas Mardi Gras Celebration

The story of the 1903 Opelousas Carnival was carried in nearly every state newspaper, and even those in other states. The glowing news reports praised Opelousas and its citizens for putting on such a grand event. The Carnival Committee announced it would be ongoing and promised another such event the following year. But, for some reason that did not happen.

Mardi Gras 1903 was a special time in Opelousas with such a spectacular carnival production. There have been some really great Mardi Gras events produced by Opelousas and its citizens over the years that followed.  But according to all reports, this one was very special  – the BIG one.

Tomorrow, March 1st, will be another big Opelousas celebration when the Opelousas Imperial Mardi Gras Parade rolls through town at 11am. After the parade head over to Frank’s Poboys on East Landry Street for live entertainment by Hotline from 1-3pm, followed by Mike Broussard Nu’Edition Zydeco from 3-5pm. More entertainment can be found on Mardi Gras Day at Toby’s Lounge & Reception Center, where doors open at 10am, with live music by Greg Martinez & The Delta Kings at 1pm.

Be safe, and most of all, enjoy another great Mardi Gras Day in Opelousas, and other St. Landry Parish towns. Have a bon temps.