Bear with me on this:
Many years ago a wind gust blew an acorn onto a piece of land near a bay. The ground embraced the acorn which over time germinated into a tree. Eventually the tree began dropping its own acorns one of which was picked up by a bird that carried it west across a river and swamps and then dropped it on a neck of land surrounded by the river and some lakes. Eventually that acorn would grow and became a fine oak tree. Because of the soil, climate, weather and topography the tree would grow into a bigger and firmer specimen than the one from which it came. Over time that tree would drop acorns, which would be carried across the land. Some would be washed away; others would grow, but none would ever produce a tree as fine as the one that stands between the river and the lakes. Only the original tree, the one by the bay, would approximate its offspring but never, never equal it.
Each year at Carnival time the question of which city had the first Mardi Gras celebration, Mobile or New Orleans, is raised. This year Mobile even stirred it up by placing billboards in support of itself telling drivers the mileage to “America’s original Mardi Gras.”
Answering the question of which came first is never easy, because the explanation is convoluted and attention spans are brief. Times like these call for a metaphor.
In 1830 a group of men started a parade at mid-night of New Year's Eve. In honor of their noise-making tools that they had borrowed from a hardware store they called themselves the Cowbellians. The march was popular and became an annual event. Eventually they shifted their procession to Mardi Gras, a day celebrated in Mobile because of the town’s French ancestry. Thus was the first acorn planted.
Eventually some of the men from Mobile moved to New Orleans, where they partnered with a few local gentlemen and formed a parade to march on Mardi Gras night, they called the group Comus and created a new word from old English, “Krewe.” On Mardi Gras night of 1857 they paraded with costumes and float figures borrowed from the Cowbellians’ New Years parade. Like the second acorn, this was something that was growing in a better place. New Orleans was a major port city with a burgeoning population. It was a better location for, not just a seed, but for an event to grow and take hold. Comus set the template for all else that was to follow, including Rex in 1872; Momus then Proteus and onward. Every parade krewe in New Orleans to follow, from Alla to Zulu, would have traces of Comus’ DNA.
Rex would give Carnival its colors and its anthem. In New Orleans, a tradition began of throwing favors from floats. A French delicacy, king cakes, took on a New Orleans style and richness. Like the acorns that were carried to other places, Carnival celebration would develop throughout the land, but they were lesser events merely borrowing fragments of the New Orleans Carnival.
Back to the oak trees. As the one growing in New Orleans became strong and famous the natives would learn to propagate and care for it so that it could become even bigger and would attract more attention. Eventually, some of those techniques would be carried to Mobile where the parading groups were now also called “krewes” and the season’s colors were borrowed from Rex – plus beads were now being thrown from floats. (One Louisiana float builder also builds several parades for Mobile.) New Orleans had influenced and nourished the Mobile Mardi Gras.
So what can be said about which came first? Both cities had miscellaneous celebrations in their early days, but in terms of a continuing Carnival tradition: Mobile influenced New Orleans’ Comus; Comus influenced all else that would follow including in Mobile. The child had become parent of the mother.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.