Mistick Krewe of Comus
Prior to the advent of Comus, Carnival celebrations in New Orleans were mostly confined to the Roman Catholic Creole community, and parades were irregular and often very informally organized. Comus was organized by (largely Protestant) Anglo-Americans.
Formation and first parade
In December 1856, six Anglo-American New Orleans businessmen gathered at a club room above the now-defunct Gem Restaurant in New Orleans' French Quarter to organize a secret society to observe Mardi Gras in a less crude fashion. The inspiration for the name came from John Milton's Lord of Misrule in his masque Comus. Part of the inspiration for the parade was a Mobile, Alabama, Carnival mystic society, with annual parades, called the Cowbellion de Rakin Society (from 1830), of which businessman Joseph Ellison was a member.
One Mardi Gras historian describes the Mistick Krewe's creation in New Orleans thus:
- "It was Comus, who, in 1857, saved and transformed the dying flame of the old Creole Carnival with his enchanter's cup; it was Comus who introduced torch lit processions and thematic floats to Mardi Gras; and it was Comus who ritually closed, and still closes, the most cherished festivities of New Orleans with splendor and pomp."
Comus' first night parade – replete with torches (which later came to be known as "flambeaux"), marching bands, and rolling floats – was wildly popular with Carnival revelers. So popular was the first Comus parade that the prospect of its second one attracted, for the first time, thousands of out-of-town visitors to New Orleans for the Carnival celebration.
Respites from revelry
From the first Comus parade until a police strike in 1979, nothing suspended New Orleans' lavish Mardi Gras celebrations except war. On March 1, 1862, Comus issued his first proclamation suspending Carnival revelry on account of war. On that day, the New Orleans Daily Picayune published this notice:
WHEREAS, War has cast its gloom over our happy homes and care usurped the place where joy is wont to hold its sway. Now, therefore, do I deeply sympathizing with the general anxiety, deem it proper to withhold your Annual Festival in this goodly Crescent City and by this proclamation do command no assemblage of the
Given under my hand this, the 1st day of March A.D. 1862.Comus
Comus issued an identical proclamation in 1917 (for World War I), another in 1942 (for World War II), and again in 1951 (for the Korean War). On each occasion, the Captain of Comus persuaded the Captains of other Krewes to refrain from organized revelry during international hostilities.
From 1885–1889, the Mistick Krewe chose not to parade, although other observances continued. During this period, the Krewe of Proteus moved its parade to Carnival night. When Comus resumed parading in 1890, Proteus refused a request to withdraw from parading on Mardi Gras night. The same year, the two parades collided on Canal Street, nearly reaching an impasse. As the Captains of the two groups exchanged defiant expressions, a Comus masker diverted the horse bearing the Captain of Proteus, and Comus was able to complete its procession.
Early affiliation with Pickwick Club
Membership in Comus was historically associated with membership in the private Pickwick Club, and for a time the two organizations were one. In 1884, the Club and the Krewe of Comus severed all official ties.
In the 20th and early 21st centuries, their membership is not identical; but it is believed that there are members common to both groups.
Carnival secrecy and exclusivity
Comus has jealously guarded the identities of its membership and the privacy of its activities (other than its parade), perhaps even more than the other Carnival organizations subscribing to the traditional code of secrecy.
Legend has it that admittance to the Mistick Krewe's ball was so highly sought-after that a group of uninvited ladies formed a flying wedge and attempted to force their way into the Comus ball. In other years, uninvited persons have tried to beg, buy, or steal invitations to the ball.
Even after the Mystic Krewe of Comus ball is over, its invitations are prized by collectors. They are both rare and uncommonly beautiful.
Meeting of the Courts
The Mistick Krewe of Comus also originated another Carnival tradition: the "Meeting of the Courts." The practice originated in 1882, when Rex (the King of Carnival) and his Queen paid a formal visit to the throne of Comus. This ritualized meeting eventually evolved into the symbolic conclusion of the Mardi Gras season, a practice which continues to this day.
Although Rex is the titular King, some observers believe that the Meeting of the Courts – in which Rex leaves his own festivities and is received by a seated Comus at the Mistick Krewe's bal masque – establishes Comus as the more prestigious of the two organizations in the Carnival hierarchy.
Mardi Gras parades
The first Comus parade was held on Mardi Gras 1857, and this became an annual event. Other organizations sprang up in New Orleans in the 19th century, inspired by the Comus model, and also came to be known as Krewes.
Parading on Mardi Gras night, Comus was the final parade of the carnival season for over 100 years. It was much smaller and more sedate than the other parades of the day put on by Rex and the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
The Comus parades became known for their sometimes obscure themes relating to ancient history and mythology. While other New Orleans parades might have a theme such as "Foods of the World" or "Broadway Show Tunes," Comus would present themes on the order of "Serpent Deities of the Ancient Near East."
Withdrawal from parading
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In 1991 the New Orleans City Council, led by Democrat Dorothy Mae Taylor, passed an ordinance that required social organizations, including Mardi Gras Krewes, to certify publicly that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, in order to obtain parade permits and other public licensure. In effect the ordinance required these, and other private social, groups to abandon their traditional code of secrecy and identify their members for the city's Human Relations Commission. The Comus organization (along with Momus and Proteus, other 19th-century Krewes) withdrew from parading, rather than identify its membership.
Two Federal courts later decided that the ordinance was an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights of free association and an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of the groups subject to the ordinance. The decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals appears at volume 42, page 1483 of the Federal Reporter (3rd Series), or 42 F.3d 1483 (5th Cir. 1995). The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the city's appeal from this decision.
Despite the Circuit Court ruling, the Krewe of Comus has not returned to the streets to parade. (Krewe of Proteus later returned.)
The Mistick Krewe of Comus still holds an annual ball on Mardi Gras night.
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Notes and references
- All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival by Reid Mitchell. Harvard University Press:1995. ISBN 0-674-01622-X pg 21
- Arthur B. LaCour, New Orleans Masquerade: Chronicles of Carnival (Pelican Publishing 1952)
- "Carnival/Mobile Mardi Gras Timeline" (list of events), The Museum of Mobile, 2002, webpage: MoM-timeline (events at 1850).
- Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras Treasures: Invitations of the Golden Age, page 13 (Pelican Publishing 2000)
- Robert Tallant, Mardi Gras, page 117 (Pelican Publishing 1976)