The Swedish Connection to Mardi Gras


Mummery in America is as unique to Philadelphia as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans.  The Swedes were Philadelphia’s first settlers, with settlements starting as early as 1639. When they arrived in Tinicum Township, just outside Philadelphia, the Swedes brought with them their custom of visiting friends and neighbors on “Second Day Christmas”, December 26.

Later they extended this period of merriment to include New Year’s Day, and welcomed the New Year with masquerades and the parading of noisy revelers. One can see the similarities to be found in Philadelphia’s mummers’ festivities compared to that what occurred with the Cowbellions in Mobile in 1830.

These New Year’s traditions then travelled to New Orleans where they were incorporated into the European Mardi Gras.

The Mardi Gras parade tradition began in 1856, when the “Mistick Krewe of Comus” — a group of Anglo-Americans from Alabama — rolled two floats through New Orleans’ streets at night. In subsequent years the krewe became renowned for its dream-like wood and papier-mâché floats inspired by classical themes.

Romances of Wales by Bror Anders Wickstrom
Romances of Wales by Bror Anders Wickstrom

Comus is the Greek god of revelry, merrymaking and festivity. He was the son and cup-bearer of the god Dionysus.

Matholwich - King of Ireland by Bror Anders Wickstrom
Matholwich – King of Ireland by Bror Anders Wickstrom

 is an organization that puts on a parade or ball for the Carnival season (New Orleans Mardi Gras and some other carnival sites in the US).

Prior to Mistick Krewe of Comus, Carnival celebrations in New Orleans were mostly confined to the Roman Catholic Creole community, and parades were organized informally.

Alligator and Zebra by Charles Briton
Alligator and Zebra by Charles Briton

New Orleans parade design reached its pinnacle in the late 1800s through the work of two cosmopolitan Swedish artist-emigres — Charles Briton and Bror Anders Wikstrom, which documents the swedish connection to Mardi Gras. Their fantastical creations — with titles like ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman” (a quote from King Lear) and “Sunset Dance of the Mosquito” — were whimsical confections bedecked with follies, flowers and grottos glittering with giant jewels. Comus ended its parade in 1992, in protest of a city ordinance that banned discrimination in Mardi Gras groups.

Sea-nettle and bat by Charles Briton
Sea-nettle and bat by Charles Briton

Comus was an outgrowth of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, a group of Mobile revelers first celebrating New Year’s Eve a quarter of a century earlier and whose leader, Michael Krafft, was likely influenced by his Pennsylvania mummer traditions. The noisy group celebrated the coming of the New Year in a parade manned with cowbells, rakes and hoes. These mummer-oriented festivities would eventually make their way to New Orleans.

Charles Briton, a native of Gothenburg, Sweden arrived in New Orleans in 1865.  The young Swede, was soon employed by lithographer Emile Boehler, and resided with the Boehler family for ten years at 456 Bienville St.  Briton fell ill with yellow fever in 1688 and nearly died, but he was nursed back to health by the Boehlers. The following year brought Briton’s earliest known Carnival design, the ensemble tableau for the Comus Ball of 1870, “Louisiana: her founders and defenders”.

Throughout Carnival’s Golden Age, everything connected with the design, housing or construction of the pagents was sacred and hidden.  To the krewe captains and design committees, the anonymous Briton became quite well known, for all the early carnival societies turned to him to design every aspect of their production – floats, costumes, tableau, ball settings and invitations.

Charles Briton died at the age of 44 on July 1, 1884 while working in his studio on Exchange Alley.  His young neighbor and fellow Swede, Bror Anders Wikström, had helped him to finish the designs for Rex.  Wikström succeeded Briton and continued to design for Rex, and later for Proteus. He designed the carnival parades of the Krewe of Proteus from 1900 to 1910.

Bror Anders Wikström, born on April 14, 1854, came to New Orleans already in 1883, but his entrée to the world of carnival came when he began to work with Charles Briton. He was known for his marine paintings as a sailor, and also for his Louisiana landscapes, as well as portraits and historical subjects.   Wikström ran away to sea at a young age and spent a dozen years as a sailor.

When he returned to Sweden, he studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm and later in Paris before setting out to make his fortune in America.  Bror Anders Wikström died in New York City on April 27, 1909, while working on a design for a parade for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration.

Today many of Wikström’s paintings, such as Mangrove Swamp (1902), along with some of his etchings, Carnival sketches, and even some of his tools, can be found at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

Fature image (on top) Krew de vieux

Kindly submitted by Cecilia Kjellgren, New Orleans