Everything you need to know about the history of Mardi Gras

On Sunday, February 20, McNicholas will celebrate its 70th Mardi Gras.  

In 1953, the Sisters of Saint Joseph organized a festival to raise money for the school and decided to celebrate its success. Originally from New Orleans, the Sisters of St. Joseph decided to make it Mardi Gras-themed, and as they say, the rest is history.  

The tradition of Mardi Gras is unique to McNick and the tradition became to have a queen, king, Maid of Honor, Captain of the Ball, senior court, and honor guards of sophomore and junior students. When the Sisters of St. Joseph first started Mardi Gras, the students who sold the most raffle tickets won the top spots of queen and king. As the years have passed, the choosing of the queen and king moved to votes from their peers and teachers and is based on service to the school, as well as service in the students’ parishes and greater communities. Students are first nominated based on their service involvement, like clubs and sports. Each honor guard features four young men and four young women in the sophomore and junior classes, and the senior court is composed of 20 young men and 20 young women who have earned the most votes over the course of the past four years. The two who have received the most votes become queen and king, but the winners are secret until they are announced the night of the pageant and dance. 

Having the queen change into a white dress has been one of the biggest traditions over the years. Before the queen began wearing a white dress, most of the women on the court would wear white or beige ball gown-style dresses. The dance has been the most formal dance for McNick for the year, so women have traditionally worn long, ball gowns, and the men wear suits or sports jackets. Court members wear tuxes. Though the men’s outfits have not changed much, women’s dresses have. Some choose to wear short, plain dresses or long, bright dresses. “I like that tradition [of long dresses]. I think it just made Mardi Gras a little bit more special in my mind that it wasn’t like the same type of dresses you would wear for homecoming or prom,” math teacher and 2001 McNick graduate Ashley Brothers said. “I would like to see that tradition come back and make it more of a ball.” 

One of the traditions that will never change is making the banners with the theme of the pageant. McNick has banners from the first pageant to now, and they are hung through the gym for every Mardi Gras to show all the themes through the years. Due to Covid-19 in 2021, the committee decided not to put up the banners, as well as not have the queen change to a white dress. Because of Covid protocols, the Mardi Gras of 2021 was only a pageant without an all-school dance. But this year many are excited to attend the dance, especially sophomores, who didn’t get to go as freshmen, and the current freshmen who will also get to experience Mardi Gras for the first time.  

The theme for the 70th Mardi Gras of 2022 is “City Shining on the Hill,” which comes from a line in the McNicholas Alma Mater. Mardi Gras Chair and McNicholas math teacher Bill Losekamp said the theme represents McNick “showing other schools what it means to be a Catholic high school.”   

Theology teacher and 1994 McNick graduate, Jeff Hutchinson-Smyth as a member of the Mardi Gras Court his senior but explained how he especially enjoyed coming back to see his brother on the court. He and his brother were very close in age. “It was fun that I was just able to come back and support him,” Hutchinson-Smyth said.  

Brothers was also on the court as a senior in 2001 and when students are on the court, they have call out dances with two to three people of their choosing. Brothers explained how she was close with her grandparents but they passed before the dance. She was very close with her grandparents’ good friends, though, who would come to all her sports games and were like her grandparents. She shared how she “got to dance with [her grandfather’s friend] and it is also one of the last photos I had with him, so it was very special memory to me.”  

Theology teacher and 2004 McNick graduate, David Sandmann was the Captain of the Ball as a senior. The Captain’s job is to officially declare the beginning of Mardi Gras by blowing a whistle. Sandmann said he was very nervous and would practice every day at school and after in the courtyard, but would never have it down. He said on the night of the dance, his friends were watching him from the library on a tv and one of the friends told him when he blew the whistle, he nailed it and “all of the girls cheered.”  

Theater teacher and 1976 McNick graduate, Teresa De Zarn was voted as the queen her senior year.  De Zarn was with her date and some friends out to dinner before the dance. The nuns pulled her date aside and said, “make sure you get her back here on time.” De Zarn said, “On the way back to McNick a policeman pulled him over. He was panic stricken because he thought the nuns were going to kill him if he didn’t get me back in time.” They did get back and De Zarn said she “just remembers dancing all night.” 

In 1976, Teresa De Zarn and Pat Tabler were the Queen and King for Mardi Gras. De Zarn says she was surprised and “it was something I certainly did not expect.”

Hutchinson-Symth said, “When I was a freshman here, you pretty much didn’t go unless you had a date, but I’m so glad that culture has changed.” He said to not be pressured to ask someone and to just go with friends. 

Brothers said the same to not be pressured and to go. Brothers said that the ceremony can be a little [long], but “you appreciate it more as you get older.” 

Sandmann said to “enjoy it and kind of appreciate the history and tradition of it. It’s not something you see anywhere else.” 

De Zarn said to get good seats though. Because of Covid last year, it was optional for faculty to go, but she went to support the students. The faculty normally have to sit in certain areas and they miss a large amount of the ceremony. She said she had sat in the bleachers last year and “it’s the best seat in the house. You really see everything that is going on.”   

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