In 1857, Comus taught New Orleans how to parade
Carnival parades of a sort date to the 1830s in New Orleans — although, existing largely as rowdy street parties, they didn’t really resemble what we consider parades today. Occasionally turning violent, they had gotten so out of hand that one newspaper editor suggested they should be banned all together. Then, in 1857, a group of New Orleans businessmen — meeting as the Mistick Krewe of Comus — decided to invent a more civilized celebration. They would parade, but it would be on floats, with bands marching along and torchmen helping to illuminate it all. The modern Carnival parade had been born.
Comus is recognized as the oldest continuously operating Carnival krewe in New Orleans, although it stopped parading rather than submit to a 1991 City Council ordinance requiring parading organizations to certify they did not discriminate in choosing members. The krewe continues to hold a ball on Mardi Gras night, and Comus, Rex and their consorts meet there each year to declare the end of Carnival.
- The theme of the Mistick Krewe of Comus’ first procession was “The Demon Actors of ‘Paradise Lost.'”
- Six members of the Cowbellions de Rakin, a Carnival organization in Mobile, Ala., helped New Orleanians form the Mistick Krewe of Comus.
- Because the Cowbellions paraded in Mobile with rakes, hoes and cowbells, some Comus members brandish them at the krewe’s ball.
- Unlike Rex, Comus’ identity is never revealed.
- The torch carriers who helped illuminate the Comus parade were the beginning of the flambeaux tradition that still exists today.
- On the eve of the Union occupation of New Orleans in 1862, Comus decided not to parade. When the krewe returned to the streets in 1866, its theme was “The Past, the Present and the Future.”
- Instead of a scepter, Comus, the Greek god of festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliances, wields a goblet.
Every tradition has a beginning, and New Orleans can trace its modern Mardi Gras tradition to that spring night 160 years ago. Not only did the mystery men of Comus preserve the city’s Carnival observance — which might have been scrapped had they not stepped in — but it also provided the parading blueprint that all of today’s krewes follow. Rex has become known as the king of Carnival, but Comus is its creator.