Mardi Gras and The Fleur de Lis

CHAPTER 4 –MARDI GRAS

Napoleon (not a Bourbon but one whose emblem - the bee - is, according to many scholars, an early version thereof) planned an extensive French empire in the New World ruled from New Orleans. The long, often perilous trip from France to New Orleans required a “pit stop” for vessels to take on water and supplies. A slave rebellion on the designated refueling island, sugar cane rich San Domingue (modern-day Haiti), thwarted the emperor’s plot. Subsequently, Napoleon sold Louisiana - a third of the North American continent - to the young United States in 1803.

Ironically, the influx of wealthy plantation owners, merchants, free people of color and pirates fleeing the Haitian slave revolt doubled the size of New Orleans and reinforced its Caribbean flare just as the Americans attempted to import Puritani-cal values. The San Dominguans brought their luxurious tastes, the en vogue Bonapartist bee and the Bourbon Dynastic fleur de lis with them.

Unable to commercially or socially conquer the close-knit, exotic Catholic society they inherited, the Americans created their own “Yankee” sober city upriver of the French Quarter in Faubourg St. Marie and the Garden District. The native Cre-oles continued to live as they had in downriver neighborhoods.

To say the two groups disliked one another would be an understatement. A full blown cultural warfare for the “heart” of New Orleans was underway. Meanwhile, an economic boom ushered in an era of tremendous wealth for both societies. Currency printed and coined in Louisiana included the fleur de lis.

The rarified Creoles first denied the reality of American ascendancy. Like the Spanish overlords before, the Americans might be just temporary caretakers, to be tolerated - barely - while “we go about our own business.” “Give ‘les Ameri-caines' a few hot summers here and they will leave or adjust to our ways.” 

Adjust they did.

Today during Mardi Gras, the fleur de lis accompanies royalty in a form incom-prehensible to Americans in other parts of the nation. Here “royalty” flourishes in a country that long ago cut the cord with king and queen. Here, pretend kings and queens dance at balls, present debutante courts, create tableau and grace theatrical thrones. The fleur de lis is literally woven into the pageantry.

The fact that Americans who moved into French territory adopted many of the lo-cal customs is not surprising. At first reluctant, Americans who made New Orle-ans their home began to mimic French style. Even priggish American ladies couldn’t resist the latest Parisian fashions. French fashion transferred to the American nouveau riche. Americans even began to celebrate a medieval Catho-lic holiday that had been a masking tradition in the city since its founding.

When a significant influx of Irish and Sicilian Italians began to change the city’s demographics in the latter part of the 19th century, competing European Creole and American societies collapsed into each other’s arms like long-lost lovers. Distinctions between Catholic and Protestant were less important than distinc-tions between upper and lower classes. And by then they had been “at it” for so long that their customs almost mirrored one another’s.

Americans in Louisiana would come to embrace the fleur de lis when European Creoles joined wealthy Americans to create social organizations that advanced political and business agendas. All of this was part of a plan to maintain control in an uneasy postbellum city. As Carnival’s overlords, the Creolized Americans ruled over a “chaotic city” that seemed to require social order.- especially on Carnival Day when “Chaos” reigned.

The pecking order changed, the caste system that had been in place for almost two centuries evolved, and a new Mardi Gras emerged that used the trappings of French royalty to validate a new regime. On the crowns and scepters of Ameri-can Southern “kings and queens,” the fleur de lis lived on.

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