Depending on how you count it, this year is truly the 150th anniversary of the continuing celebration of Carnival parades in New Orleans.
One-hundred fifty years ago, in 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus staged its first parade. Though there had been miscellaneous parades on Mardi Gras in New Orleans before, Comus set the template from which all else would follow. He introduced the fabricated word “krewe” and the monarchical style of parade. A year later, Comus’ 1858 march wowed spectators with their first ever view of a succession of floats. All else that would follow over the next century and a half – from Alla to Zulu – would be influenced by Comus.
Within the world of the New Orleans Carnival there is much confusion over how anniversaries are counted. In much the same way that people argued whether the Millennium began in 2000 or 2001, so too are Carnival dates perplexing. Last year would have marked the 150th time that Comus paraded, had it paraded all those years, which it hasn’t; this year marks the 150th full year in which Comus, and therefore the New Orleans style Mardi Gras celebration, has existed. (There is a double standard. In 1999 the Carnival establishment celebrated the 300th anniversary of the explorer Iberville’s arrival in the Louisiana territory on March 3 (Mardi Gras) 1699. Yet, by the way other anniversaries are counted, the tricentennial should have been celebrated in 1998.)
We choose to acknowledge this year as the proper anniversary because it made sense and because last year was overshadowed by the drama of life in post-Katrina New Orleans. More than being about anniversaries, Carnival 2006 was about survival. Beginning with the Mayor, and then followed by several other grumpy citizens, questions were raised about whether or not the parades should be held amidst such devastation. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and instead of Carnival, by its absence, signaling to the world that New Orleans was too down and out to even muster a parade, the city showed that despite the rubble, its spirit was still here. Mardi Gras last year was the first major event in the city after Katrina, and without it, we would’ve been much slower at having confidence in our ability to come back. On the eve of Carnival’s true 150th anniversary, New Orleans staged what proved to be the most important Mardi Gras ever. (By the way, this year is the first anniversary of the 2006 Carnival; using the way others count, last year would have been the first anniversary.)
As the Mistick Krewe begins its second century and a half we wish it well and express our appreciation for it giving us Mardi Gras as we know it. We also hope that Comus’ parade will return to the streets soon. Without the Mistick Krewe’s Mardi Gras night march, Carnival has lost its punctuation mark. Wouldn’t it be great if Comus would be parading again by 2012, its true 155th anniversary?