The Fascinating History of the Krewes of Mardi Gras

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from a Harry Parsons, who I am excited to have posting this weekend/upcoming week to talk about Mardi Gras history and tradition, right at the height of the season. Harry is the content manager at Arcadia Publishing. While he spends most of his time being a bookworm, he enjoys anything outdoors especially if it involves the water.

The Fascinating History of the Krewes of Mardi Gras

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Can Mardi Gras really be considered complete without a parade that pulls out all the stops? After all, the colorful floats, glittering beads, and costumed revelers we’re all familiar with are a huge part of what set the tone of a truly unforgettable Mardi Gras celebration. Have you ever wondered who those revelers are or how they came to play that particular role in the festivities?

They aren’t just average, everyday folks or people who simply got lucky. They’re members of a Mardi Gras krewe, part of a time-honored tradition that has been around as long as Mardi Gras itself. Here we’ll take a closer look at the history and tradition of the krewes of Mardi Gras, as well as shine on a spotlight on some of the best known and most popular examples.

What Exactly Is a Krewe?

The term “krewe” refers to any organization or group of revelers that have come together to sponsor or otherwise host a Mardi Gras ball, parade, or another event. New Orleans sees about 60 of these events every year, each one of which exists because of a krewe. As far as how many krewes there are, New Orleans literally boasts multiple dozens of them with more springing up all the time. Each one represents a different sector of New Orleans society.

As is the case with most groups or organizations, each krewe also has its own set of rules, traditions, and values that bind them together. However, there are some similarities they all share. For instance, each krewe must host a parade that includes bands, floats, or both. Its members must also host a ball. Most importantly of all, Mardi Gras must be the primary theme and purpose for both. Each one of the Mardi Gras krewes is part of a larger organization called the Krewe of Krewes that was first formed in 1979.

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The Origins of the Mardi Gras Krewes

As touched on above, the Mardi Gras krewes are as old as Mardi Gras itself, and you quite simply don’t have one without the other. The origins of Mardi Gras itself go all the way back to medieval Europe.

As a tradition, it would spread through Rome and Venice before eventually reaching the French House of the Bourbons. It was here that the tradition of the “Boeuf Gras” (or “fatted calf”) would take root. That tradition would follow French settlers to America, setting the stage for the Mardi Gras we know and love today.

March 2, 1699 would see the explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrive at a particular 60-mile patch of land located just south of New Orleans. That year, March 2nd was also the eve of Mardi Gras, so the land was dubbed “Pointe du Mardi Gras” in acknowledgment of that fact. Bienville would also found the settlement then known as “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” (now Mobile) in 1702. The following year, that settlement would also host the very first official Mardi Gras celebration here in America.

A secret society known as the Masque de la Mobile, an early forerunner of the modern day krewes, was established in 1704. Although the Masque would disband in 1709, other similar groups would spring up to take its place. In 1718, New Orleans would officially be founded, a place where Mardi Gras was openly celebrated. In the 1740s the first Mardi Gras society balls would be established. By the 1830s, Mardi Gras would also be celebrated with the colorful parades and street processions we know and love today.

In 1856, six young natives hailing from Mobile would form the Mistick Krewe of Comus, named for John Milton’s hero of the same name. Comus would go down in history as the first official Mardi Gras krewe, a group that lent mystery and magic to the festivities with masked balls, glittering floats, and other celebratory events.

In 1870, the second krewe – known as the Twelfth Night Revelers – would appear with many others to follow over the years to come. Today, there are more than 60 active krewes and counting.

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A Look at a Few Famous Krewes

Many krewes are active throughout the year, and all have their own unique approaches to Mardi Gras. The following are just a few well-known examples:

Krewe of Cosmos-Calcasieu Parish’s First Merrymakers

Formed in 1951, this krewe was originally sponsored by the Fifty’s Club. Its first members were also all Fourth Degree Members of the Knights of Columbus. Today, the Krewe of Cosmos boasts 220 members, as well as a waiting list filled with hopeful potential members.

The group remains active throughout the calendar year and is well known for visiting nursing homes, as well as hosting a variety of membership events. They include but are not limited to a crawfish ball, a barbecue, and a Twelfth Night ball open to the public.

Krewe of Contraband

This krewe got its start in 1963 at a housewarming celebration. When local businessman Sammy Navarra mentioned wanting to found a krewe, Ernest C. Schindler promptly handed him a check, stating that he was its first member. Afterward, Navarra would invite over 150 business owners to join the krewe as well.

The Krewe of Contraband considers the honoring of women, especially the daughters and granddaughters of its members, to be its primary purpose. Any eligible descendant that has reached her 18th birthday may be chosen to serve on the Royal Court.

Krewe of Omega

This krewe was formed in 1970 by Joseph Moffett Jr. for the purpose of providing both youth and elderly citizens with meaningful social activities. It is also well known for giving out service awards to community members that go above and beyond to improve life for local people. Currently, the Krewe of Omega has 46 members, each of which is either a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity of Lake Charles or the spouse of a member.

Of course, the above are only a few of the many Mardi Gras krewes currently active today. Like the above examples, each features its own focus and represents a different slice of society. Each lends its own special touch to Mardi Gras as we know it today.

Chewbaccus 2017

For those of you outside New Orleans: Chewbaccus is a Mardi Gras krewe (an organization that puts together a parade and/or ball during Carnival) that is sci-fi and fantasy themed—so lots of fun stuff with very nerdy twists.

What I love about Chewbaccus is that it’s not just incredibly nerdy (because that’s a given)–but I also really love that the floats and costumes are handmade. This year, Little Jedi wanted to know “where they get all this stuff.” Well darling–it’s all made from craft supplies, imagination, and lots of dedication. Never underestimate nerds with a plan and an abundance of craft stores nearby.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from this year’s parade:

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