Mardi Gras Krewes & Secret Societies
Carnival's Social & Parading Organizations and Ultra-Secret Groups
Krewe Members Throw Beads in Houma, Louisiana
In the world of Mardi Gras parades and balls, krewes and, to a lesser extent, secret societies are responsible for coordinating and funding almost all of the major events. In addition to their Mardi Gras activities, krewes and secret societies also have a tradition of charitable giving and community service.
With the exception of San Diego, each of the cities profiled on All About Mardi Gras (Galveston, Houma, Lake Charles, Mobile, New Orleans, Pensacola, and St. Louis) has its own Mardi Gras krewes, and in many cases secret societies. No one krewe is better than another, and no city’s krewes are necessarily tied to another’s, even if the names are similar.
That said, the generally benevolent nature of these organizations traditionally means that krewes from one city often provide assistance (both technical and monetary) to krewes in another.
Mardi Gras Krewes
Krewes are organizations that are mostly open to the public, or a specific group (firefighters, teachers, autoworkers, Shriners, etc.) that works together for the common purpose of preparing for Mardi Gras parades and balls.
Krewes generally charge a membership fee and require their members to participate in fundraisers and other events to help raise money both for Mardi Gras activities and for charitable giving.
Money raised from krewe membership fees and fundraising is poured into float construction, costumes, and the purchase of hundreds of thousands of beads and other throws for the floats.
Additionally, many krewes sponsor elaborate costume balls for their members. Generally, a king and/or queen are selected at these events and reign as that krewe’s monarch during Mardi Gras parades and public events.
In many towns, krewes often sponsor an entire parade by themselves. In these instances, most of the floats and major pieces in the parade are built by krewe members and volunteers. Larger citywide parades will feature floats from multiple krewes and parading organizations.
Secret Societies & Mardi Gras
Secret societies have probably been a part of the Mardi Gras culture since the very beginning. I say ”probably” because, well, they’re secret, and, unless you are on the inside, there’s no way to know for sure.
Suffice it to say that these groups are as active, in their own quietly benevolent ways, as krewes. Many credit secret societies with keeping the tradition of Mardi Gras going when the event’s popularity waned, as was the case in Galveston, Texas around World War II. With the men folk away fighting the war, public Carnival events slowed to a crawl and Mardi Gras went indoors to private homes. It was in these small intimate (secret) events that Mardi Gras was kept alive, waiting to be revived again in the mid-1980s.
The reasons for secrecy are likewise unknown, and probably vary from organization to organization. Some may involve a desire for Robin hood-like anonymity, while others may be secret for discretionary reasons.
Ultimately, krewes and secret societies are the glue that holds Mardi Gras together. They represent the social, charitable, and community service side of these massive events.
Krewe & Society Organization
While there really are no hard and fast rules for how krewes must be organized, there are some commonalities you'll likely run across if you attend Mardi Gras.
At a minimum, most krewes elect a king and queen, for Mardi Gras. And many krewes elect an entire royal court, complete with princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses, barons, and baronesses. These are honorary positions, elected by the krewe membership (if they aren't rotating appointments), and last only for the length of the Mari Gras season, or from the end of one season to the end of the next (a full year).
Most krewes also have a “Krewe Captain”. Generally speaking, this is a managerial position, chiefly responsible for organizing events/projects, logistics, and krewe business. The krewe captain also oversees the design and production schedule of the costumes, and floats for the Mardi Gras season. Typically the krewe’s board of directors appoints this position.
As with the board of directors for nearly any large organization, the BOD for most krewes and secret societies are elected by the membership for rotating terms, and, among their other duties, may be responsible for choosing the krewe's themes and designs for the upcoming Mardi Gras season(s).
Though this represents the basic structure of a “krewe”, there are hundreds of krewes out there and each has its own way of doing things. If you are interested in joining a krewe, take the time to find out how that particular organization does business, and you’ll stand a better chance of navigating the path to membership.