On February night 24, 1857, under gas torches in New Orleansthe warehouse district, a Mardi Gras the tradition was born. At the intersection of Julia and Magazine streets, the Mistick Krewe of Comus kicked off Fat Tuesday with a parade that marched through the city’s main thoroughfares to the Gaiety Theater on Gravier Street between the Carondelet and Baronne streets.
The staged procession coalesced around a single theme, “The Demonic Actors of Milton’s Paradise Lost”, and featured classic characters from lost paradise, such as Pluto and Prosperine, the Fates, the fairies, the harpies, the gorgons, Satan, Isis, Osiris and many others. Once the parade reached the Gaiety Theater, the members presented four paintings taken from lost paradise: Tartarus, the Expulsion, the conference of Satan and Beelzebub, and finally Pandemonium. After presenting the four paintings, the members of Krewe attended a masquerade ball at the Gaiety, partying into the night.
Before the Comus parade in 1857, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration was very different from today’s. Beginning in the 1830s, noisy street parties invaded the city on Shrove Tuesday, and sometimes the unorganized festivities even turned violent. One newspaper editor even suggested that celebrations be banned altogether. The organization of a “Krewe” with their thematic costumes and an organized parade followed by a ball brought the founding elements to Mardi Gras that continues today.
After 1857 the Mistick Krewe of Comus continued to parade each year until the Civil War interrupted the celebrations from 1862 to 1867. From then on the tradition continued and strengthened with the formation of a second Krewe in 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers. In 1872, local businessmen formed the carnival king, Rex. That same year, the traditional colors purple, green, and gold were chosen as the official carnival colors in honor of a visiting Russian Grand Duke and his family colors. The meaning of the colors then changed: purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith. In 1875, Louisiana Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act” making Mardi Gras a legal holiday in the state, which it remains to this day.