OPINION | Tulane students should educate themselves about Mardi Gras history

Billie Wyler, Contributing Columnist

(Will Embree)

Students at Tulane University are already beginning to prepare for what many likely consider the most exciting days of the year: Mardi Gras. 

To celebrate this anticipated holiday, students at Tulane are given a “Mardi Gras Holiday” break in which they have Monday, Feb. 28, 2022 and Tuesday, March 1, 2022 off from school. 

The university allots time off for Mardi Gras celebrations, emphasizing the historical and cultural significance of the holiday in New Orleans. While Tulanians are certainly enthusiastic about this holiday break unique to our school, many students are under informed about the historical and cultural roots of this holiday. Instead, many students treat this holiday as an opportunity to take time off of school and party.

Some of the biggest and most elaborate Mardi Gras parades take place in Uptown, not far off from Tulane’s campus. However, in recent years, Tulane’s campus has become more of a Mardi Gras destination itself, full of students attending fraternity parties each day before the parades. 

Mardi Gras at Tulane is not, by any means, separate from the greater New Orleans holiday. But, the excitement and intensity surrounding the university’s culture of celebrating the holiday in typical Tulane fashion may detract from students understanding its historical origins. 

Mardi Gras is actually a holiday with Christian roots that dates back thousands of years to Pagan spring and fertility tradition. The tradition has been celebrated for centuries, making appearances in medieval Europe, where it was brought to France.

Mardi Gras was brought to New Orleans by French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville in 1699, before New Orleans was even officially established. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated widely in New Orleans but not in the way we know the holiday today. In the 18th century, the holiday was celebrated by the elite who threw elegant society balls, which excluded many from participating. 

However, Mardi Gras evolved into more of a parade, with carriages and throws by the late 1800s. While this change to the holiday allowed more people to engage in celebration, the history of slavery and racism in the city made Black citizens feel as though they could not participate in a New Orleans parade. 

Thus, Black communities in New Orleans eventually came together to develop their own ways to celebrate. They established their own krewes, many of which they named after imaginary Native American tribes. 

Black New Orleanians designed the Native American-inspired krewe names. Many felt it was important to pay respect to the Native Americans who helped the Black population in New Orleans escape the tyranny of slavery by taking in escaped and/or freed slaves into their communities. 

One of these krewes is the Zulu krewe, which was created in 1909 due to the heavily segregated holiday parades in the city. To this day, the Zulu krewe holds a series of events leading up to and during Mardi Gras. The Zulu Coronation Ball is thrown in order to raise money for African American individuals and families who struggle with financial hardships.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is considered the most recognizable Black Mardi Gras carnival organization or krewe. However, this majority-Black krewe, and others alike, have conducted their own parades for over a century, yet are still one of the least recognized Mardi Gras traditions. 

Those who celebrate Mardi Gras in this city enjoy the customs and traditions of Black Mardi Gras. Many Tulane celebrants may have little knowledge about the origins and meanings of these traditions.

Only 13.3% of Tulane students are Louisiana natives. Unless the remaining 83.5% of out-of-state or international undergraduates have taken a class in New Orleans history, Louisiana history or Mardi Gras history, it is safe to say that a large proportion of students are not well-versed in the origins of the holiday if they have not researched it independently. 

Tulane students should acknowledge the holiday’s complex and layered past that historically excluded Black members of the community. Thus, in addition to attending fraternity parties and parading throughout the city, Tulane students should make a point to educate themselves about the city that provides them with so much.

Additionally, students can find ways to become more informed and engaged. The Mardi Gras New Orleans website contains pertinent information about the holiday’s history and also posts parade schedules. Students should be encouraged to do their own research and find their own ways to participate this Mardi Gras season.