History of Mardi Gras & Lafayette's Mardi Gras celebrations There are many theories concerning the origin of Mardi Gras. However, it is generally accepted that the observance of Mardi Gras (also known as Carnival) arises from the desire to have a good time before fasting - to eat, drink and be merry - before beginning the period of fasting during Lent.
The term "Carnival" is derived from the phrase "carne vale", which translates to "farewell to flesh". Fasting is an old custom and during the Middle Ages it was a very serious matter. The consumption of meat, eggs and milk were forbidden during Lent by both ecclesiastical and statute law. Even as late as 1560, laws were passed punishing butchers for slaughtering animals during the Lenten season.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the festival of carnival was celebrated across the world, Russia, Africa, India, Persia, England, and throughout the European continent. During this period, the carnival in France was encouraged and sponsored by the French kings. The French Revolution ended the French celebration of carnival. However, early in the nineteenth century the celebration was reinstated by Napoleon with all of its' former revelry. It is thought that during this time, students from New Orleans, who were attending school in Paris, witness these grand celebrations and brought the idea the celebration of carnival back to New Orleans, and eventually to Acadiana.
The first Mardi Gras celebrations in Acadiana were very primitive. The women made costumes for their men to "Courir de Mardi Gras" (literally translated "Fat Tuesday run"). On Mardi Gras day, these masked men would go from farm to farm knocking on doors, singing songs, dancing, and asking for chickens, rice, and whatever was necessary to make a gumbo. The Captain led the group of maskers and there was much merriment and clowning. They were usually followed by musicians in wagons which also carried the hens and gumbo ingredients they had collected along the way.
The culmination was when everyone returned to their starting point and the women made a gumbo with the ingredients. This unique celebration is still going on in the many rural communities of Louisiana, including Mamou and Eunice. Large numbers of tourists from all over the United States and the world come to "Cajun Country" come to participate in the annual "Courir de Mardi Gras" festivities.
The first recorded celebration of Mardi Gras in Lafayette was on February 14, 1869 when according to the local newspaper ". . .Clement's band provided the music in the courthouse. . . ". But the first city wide Mardi Gras observance was in 1897, when Manuel Pellerin initiated the idea of a Mardi Gras King and Queen, a parade, a pageant and a ball. He worked with H.A. Vandercruyssen, J.T. Allingham and Maurice Patin, who designed, constructed, painted, and supervised the chariots or carnival floats. It was that first Mardi Gras Ball and Parade in 1897 that set the pattern for all future Lafayette Mardi Gras celebrations. The first King was Judge George Armand "Bedon" (High Hat) Martin, known as a " . . .raconteur, dentist, planter, solon, and genial gentlemen."
Judge Martin reigned as King Attakapas, and on March 2, 1897, he roared into Lafayette on a Southern Pacific locomotive that had been transformed into his royal throne. All future Kings arrived in Lafayette in the same grand manner until 1961, when Herbert Abdalla (the 22nd King Gabriel) used the train for the last time. Judge Martin's Queen was Isure Mcdaniel, and the two royal figures and their royal courts reigned in magnificent oriental robes. King Martin led five other Royal chariots in a grand parade. Following the first Mardi Gras parade, a Grand Ball was held in the Courthouse. The older residents of Lafayette claim this was the finest ever seen.
It was not until 1926 that another city-wide Mardi Gras celebration was recorded. Court Immaculta of the Catholic Daughters of America in¬augurated the first children's carnival, the Krewe of Oberon, which still exists today. In 1927, the first Lafayette High School Carnival was held and the American Legion held their first Mardi Gras parade. Louis A. Broussard made the floats for this parade using over 40 yards of gold satin for the Royal Chariot.
In 1933, planning for an annual city-wide celebration was started by Stanley Martin, Post No. 69 of the American Legion in Lafayette. In 1934, a city-wide carnival celebration became reality under the leadership of Post members Gaston Hebert, Stanley Martin and Laurent Comeaux, who joined with various civic leaders of Lafayette, including Maurice Heymann and Paul Krauss. The group invited representatives from all the civic organizations to a meeting where the Greater Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association was formed. Gaston Hebert was elected President of the Association in 1934 and served as such until 1940. Many credit Maurice Heymann as being the "father of Lafayette's Mardi Gras" because he underwrote the group's activities many times until it and was on its financial feet.
During these formative years local teacher Lucille Griffin started the Lafayette High Carnival Ball and help to organize the traditions of Lafayette's Mardi Gras. The first costumes were designed by another teacher at the High School, Miss Inez Neyland. In those days, the floats were pulled by mules and the night parades were lighted by men carrying burning torches. Mardi Gras in Lafayette thrived from 1934 through 1941.
All festivities were suspended from 1942 through 1947 due to World War II. In 1948, the celebration was revived and has been held continuously, with the exception of 1951 (Korean Conflict).
In 1949 the Krewe of Gabriel was formed to assist the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association. The Krewe was the idea of Dr. James Comeaux, who reigned as King Gabriel in 1950, to serve as an "organization within an organization" and to help Greater Southwest promote Mardi Gras on a larger scale.
The first Commodore of the Krewe of Gabriel was F.K. Dowty. Albert Miller was First Mate, John Edward Broussard, Second Mate, Robbie Castille, Purser, H.J. Lagroue, Secretary. Directors included Herbert Abdalla, Dr. James Comeaux, Henry Heymann, Frank Myers and Dr. Edgar Breaux.
The City's Carnival rulers were officially named King Gabriel and Queen Evangeline in 1934 upon a suggestion by Miss Edith Garland Dupre. Those names symbolize the Acadian sweethearts who were separated during their exile from Nova Scotia and were immortalized in the Longfellow poem "Evangeline". George Gardiner of Lafayette was the first King Gabriel and Mabel Broussard of Eunice was the first Queen Evangeline.
In 1958, the Lafayette Mardi Gras Association was created. Their monarchs are King Toussaint O'Overture and Queen Simone Signoret. Unlike some other krewes, Lafayette Mardi Gras' court and pageants are not limited to members of the Krewe. They hold a grand parade on Mardi Gras day and are well known for outstanding bands and elaborate floats in their parade.
Throughout the years a number of private carnival krewes have been formed. They hold private formal balls and select their own kings and queens. Most of the krewes have elaborate floats and participate in one of Lafayette's Mardi Gras parades.