Who Gets to Ride on Mardi Gras Floats?

Cheryl Gerber, Getty Images
Cheryl Gerber, Getty Images

Mardi Gras is pure sensory overload, and no attraction defines the celebration better than its parades. Every year, the city of New Orleans is awash in garish greens, yellows, and purples as armies of ornate, bombastic floats roll through the streets. But if you think drunkenly asking for a seat on one of these floats is going to work, well ... it's a bit more complicated than that.

The dozens of Mardi Gras parades are thrown by groups called "krewes," which are basically the organizations that stage these events. There are krewes with all sorts of themes: there's the Krewe of Cleopatra, which was originally formed just for women; the Krewe of Mid-City, with their tinfoil-decorated floats; the Krewe of Orpheus, founded by Harry Connick Jr., whose floats usually feature a celebrity or two; and plenty more.

Members of these krewes are who you see riding on the floats throughout the season, decked out in masks and costumes. In fact, float-riders are required by law to wear a mask to keep up the festival's mystique. To get on these floats you have to be a member, which involves a whole other process, depending on which krewe you choose.

Some krewes will bring you on board for a small entry fee, though this probably means you'll be helping put together the floats, buying your own costumes, etc. Others—especially for the larger and more established krewes—have a bigger fee and even hold reviews by senior members. Some of these krewes have been established within the past decade or two, while others, like the Krewe of Rex, have been around since the 19th century.

A Mardi Gras float celebrating the life of John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), an American naturalist, ornithologist and artist, in New Orleans, circa 1956.
A Mardi Gras float celebrating the life of John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), an American naturalist, ornithologist and artist, in New Orleans, circa 1956.
Three Lions, Getty Images

All membership requirements are unique. For the Krewe of Morpheus, for example, you would have needed to put in your $100 deposit in January to reserve a spot on a float (krewes have multiple floats of varying size). In total, their dues for the season are $550, which will get you a "Ride in the parade; Costume; Morpheus Bash (Pre-Parade Party); Post-Parade Party; & 1 Membership Medallion."

The Krew of Pygmalion, a krewe started in 2000, offers a similar process, with an online application and a tiered membership system that begins at $450 with $150 down, all the way to $1375 with $300 down. Smaller, grassroots krewes have even cheaper dues, like the sci-fi-themed Krewe of Chewbacchus which charges $42 and once had Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens fame as the king of its float.

Many times, the larger krewes, like the Krewe of Muses, simply don't have room for any more members. And even if there is an opening on some of these select krewes, you'd have to know a guy who knows a guy to even be considered for membership. So if you're not from New Orleans (or a celebrity) and want to get into one of the notable krewes, it's a tall order.

If you're planning a Mardi Gras trip this year, you'll likely have to settle for walking the streets instead of riding down them. But, it's never too early to start sending out those applications for 2019.

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What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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