Magnificent, opulent, resplendent, exuberant, colorful and rousing are just a few of the terms used to describe the season prior to Lent that is Mardi Gras. With roots that run deep throughout European history, Mardi Gras has become synonymous with the revelry of one of the biggest parties of the year.
When most people think of Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” which falls on Feb. 9 this year, images of vibrant costumes, elaborate floats, along with raucous and rowdy partying will come to mind. But in fact, the beginning of Mardi Gras can be traced back to ancient Rome and Venice and medieval France where Catholics celebrated “Boeuf Gras,” which translates to “fatted calf.” The weeks leading up to the Lenten season, now known as “Carnival,” were a time to enjoy feasts and festivities before entering into a time of fasting, self-reflection and sacrifice.
Those religious traditions came to the New World via French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville who, in 1699 on the eve of Mardi Gras, landed just south of New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras. In 1702, Bienville founded Fort Louis de la Louisiana, which is now Mobile, Alabama, and the following year held the first known Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. While Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718, it wasn’t until the 1730s that the first Mardi Gras festivities were held there. Even then, elegant society balls made up the celebrations, not the fanciful parades that are familiar today.
Alison and Arthur Gonzales return each year to Arthur’s hometown of Mobile, Alabama with their children, Charlotte and Arthur, to celebrate Mardi Gras.
The multiple parades and balls associated with the Mardi Gras season are not put on by their respective cities but by the many private organizations or “mystic societies.” Many of these private groups have been around since the founding of Mardi Gras and continue to be extremely selective in their membership. As many as 34 groups, also known as “krewes,” organize up to four parades daily during Carnival season in New Orleans. With names such as Phunny Phorty Phellows, Krewe of Pontchartrain, Knights of Babylon and Krewe of Bacchus, it is suspicious that those involved mean to hold a top-shelf party. The Krewe of Rex puts on New Orleans’ largest parade, and Rex rules as the King of Carnival.
For those who have never experienced the celebration that is New Orleans’ Mardi Gras in person, it is worth adding to the bucket list. Melanie Mauldin, former owner of HandPicked Jewelry in Columbia, grew up in New Orleans and has fond memories of the ritualistic celebrations. “Mardi Gras was actually a bigger celebration than Christmas,” Melanie recalls. “My aunt lived on Jackson Avenue. We would watch the parade from her house then rush over to my grandmother’s house and watch the parade all over again. We would have so many beads — we would pour them out on the floor to see who got the best ones.”
Above left: Melanie Mauldin’s grandsons, Hutch and Parker Milliken, eagerly wait on the parade to begin atop a ladder in 2008. Above right: Charlotte and Arthur Gonzales.
Beads and doubloons are much sought-after souvenirs from the parades. Members of the krewes, called “maskers” — because everyone wears a mask — toss out “throws” from the floats. “Many years ago the beads were glass,” says Melanie, “but of course they broke if you didn’t catch them.” Today the beads are plastic but still just as coveted, so much so that women both young and old are known to flash the maskers in an effort to collect as many beads as possible. Each float also has its theme portrayed on doubloons that are tossed from the floats.
Melanie is happy to see women active in the parades now. “When I was young, there were no female krewes. Now the Krewe of Muses tosses bracelets with high heel charms dangling from them,” she says.
Melanie’s family has a rich history with Carnival. “My sister and niece have both been queens of Carnival.” The many fun costumes are another favorite memory. “Our closets were full of costumes. I loved being a gypsy because it meant I could wear lots of makeup and jewelry,” she laughs.
The Rex Parade has been one of the highlights of Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans since 1872. Melanie Mauldin says that “Rex” means “king” so the proper way of acknowledging him is to say “Rex, King of Carnival,” not “King of Rex.”
Another Midlands resident, Rocky Menge, has a long connection to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and has known Melanie’s family for years. “My family has been involved in Mardi Gras since the 1800s starting with my great aunt, Pauline, who was ‘Queen of Proteus,’” he says. In fact, he has numerous relatives including grandparents, aunts, cousins and nieces who have been kings and queens of various Mardi Gras societies.
The Mardi Gras of today is much different from what Rocky recalls as a child. “It’s really only been in the past 20 years or so that Mardi Gras has received so much attention,” he says. “There are many more parades and balls today, and the routes for the parades are much longer to accommodate the larger crowds.” Rocky also says that most people probably don’t realize that the parades are not paid for by the city of New Orleans but by those mystic societies. “That makes it unique. If the various organizations decided they weren’t going to have a parade, it wouldn’t be the celebration as most people know it.”
Over in Mobile, the celebrations are similar in size and revelry. Arthur Gonzales grew up in Mobile and, as a member of one of Mobile’s mystic societies, the Infant Mystics, and as a co-founder of one of the newer societies, the Wilde Mauvillians, he returns to his native city every year to celebrate Mardi Gras.
“We don’t have nearly as long a history of Mardi Gras as some families in Mobile,” he says, “but we do have a history that goes back several generations.” The secrets of the organizations are of utmost importance according to Arthur. “Our secrecy is based on the fact that we don’t want anyone to know how much fun we really do have,” he laughs. “Our membership is to be held in tight-lipped fashion, and our sole purpose is to put on a parade and a ball.”
Top left: Children of all ages have long squeezed together on ladders to watch the parades in New Orleans. This vintage photograph is from one of Melanie Mauldin’s family friends. Bottom left: Rocky Menge’s great aunt, Pauline Menge, was queen of Proteus in 1899. Above right: Two jokers from the Rex Parade atop their float.
One of Arthur’s favorite parades is reserved to honor the man who revived the Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile following the Civil War. The festivities had been suspended during the wartime occupation by the North, but Confederate veteran Joe Cain decided to thumb his nose at the Union soldiers, and he, along with a group of fellow revelers, paraded through the streets as the “Lost Cause Minstrels.” The Sunday prior to Mardi Gras is now known as “Joe Cain Day” with the People’s Parade.
“This is the day my organization, the Wilde Mauvillians, marches,” says Arthur. “We named it to honor the Maubila Indian Tribe, which inhabited the Alabama River Delta near present-day Mobile, and were discovered by the French upon settling the area. The French found the Maubilas to be hospitable and willing trade partners. We dress in full headdress, and our newest members pull our ‘wagon float’ through the parade.”
Arthur’s societies hold large parties during the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. “The Infant Mystics hold a float barn party on Saturday so that our families get a chance to see the floats. Then there are two more parties Saturday afternoon and evening,” he says.
The Wilde Mauvillians host a big band party on the weekend prior to their departure to Mobile with 500 to 600 people in attendance. “I usually crash on Sunday night, then get up Monday to wrap up the Infant Mystic’s float and parade on Monday night.” Before the night is done, the group will hold its formal ball for nearly 3,000 people. While Tuesday is his day for recovery, that actually means an eight-hour drive home to Columbia.
But even before Arthur and Alison, his wife, head to Mobile with their kids, Charlotte and Arthur, they hold their own Mardi Gras party in Columbia. It started about five years ago as a gathering at their home the Sunday before they head to Mobile, and the first year caused their friends to rethink how they participated in the party. “People saw me in my full Indian costume and figured they were missing out by not dressing up,” he explains. “Now it’s strange if you show up to the party and you’re not in costume!” The party has since outgrown their house, and they, along with a group of friends, host partygoers at a larger, albeit secret venue.
While their celebrations may vary by city, the experiences and memories of Mardi Gras are some of the most cherished for Melanie, Rocky and Arthur. “The beauty of our event is that it is truly a family event,” says Arthur. “I feel completely comfortable bringing my children to all of the parades. My grandfather rode on the floats, my father, at age 74, still rides on the float. It’s a fabulous time.”
For Rocky, Mardi Gras is best described as two events in one. “One Mardi Gras is the craziness and crowds and general bedlam that we see on TV or experienced by the tens of thousands from out of town that have gone to New Orleans for Mardi Gras,” he says.
“The other Mardi Gras is the one experienced by the locals who actually put on the parades and balls and who, like Melanie’s family and mine, have been involved for generations. Tradition is an important thing to folks in the South and to me that is being part of a family whose roots in Mardi Gras go back four generations. From my great aunt as Queen of Proteus in 1899 and my grandfather as King of Momus in 1908 to the present day, my family has been a part of this unique experience. Even though I don’t live there any longer and haven’t been to Mardi Gras in years, I look forward to the event and feel a sense of place to know that my family for more than 100 years has been and still is part of the ‘real’ Mardi Gras.”
Rocky and Melanie agree that many celebrants may not understand the significance or the reasoning behind the event. “That part sometimes gets lost in translation,” says Rocky, “and unless you’re Catholic or Episcopalian, you don’t grasp the purpose of Mardi Gras, which is to feast prior to the period of atonement.”
Melanie believes Mardi Gras is the greatest show on earth, a time when people are allowed to truly let their hair down. “We all need the opportunity to unleash the wild part of ourselves,” she says. She describes it as a juxtaposition of living that wild life one day and moving into the experience of Lent the next. “I don’t know how you really describe it to someone,” she says, “with the diversity and the differences that come together in a great big party. That’s what is important — having a good time with whomever is standing next to you. And everybody loves everybody else on that day.”