Nothing says Mardi Gras more than beignets, jumbalaya and dirty rice. But have you ever wondered about the origins of Mardi Gras? Well, put down your Hurricanes, Banana Fosters and Mojitos and have a read. And as they say in New Orleans, “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!”... “Let the good times roll!”:
The First Mardi Gras
The history of Mardi Gras began long before Europeans set foot in the New World. In mid-February the ancient Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, a circus-like festival not entirely unlike the Mardi Gras we are familiar with today.
When Rome embraced Christianity, the early Church fathers decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of these pagan rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. Thus, Carnival became a period of abandon and merriment that preceded the penance of Lent, thus giving a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom.
What began as a Roman-based celebration however, quickly spread across the European continent. By medieval times, lords were hosting carnivals prior to Lent in honor of the conscription of their new knights. Each region and country celebrated their own traditions, but all were indulgent. In England, for example, pancake feasts were served — a tradition that lasts until today.
In France, this period of revelry before Lent was especially raucous. In fact, the term Mardi Gras is a French expression meaning “Fat Tuesday” — likely referring to the indulgent nature of the pre-Lenten celebration. The name may have been more than just allegorical, however. Ancient pagans often marked their fertility ritual by parading a fattened ox through the town before sacrificing it.
It was also the French who brought the celebration to America. Many historians believe the party crossed the Atlantic Ocean on March 3, 1699, on the ship of a French explorer named Sieur d’Iberville. The Frenchman landed in what is today Louisiana, just south of New Orleans, the heart of America’s modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations. In fact, his landing is believed to have coincided with the French celebration of Mardi Gras, explaining his choice of name for his point of entry: Point du Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras in the Late Eighteenth Century
During the late 1700′s, pre-Lenten masked balls and festivals became common in New Orleans while it was under French rule. However when New Orleans came under Spanish rule the custom was banned.
In 1803, New Orleans then came under the U.S. flag and the prohibition against masked festivals continued until 1823 when the Creole populace convinced the governor to permit masked balls. In 1827 street masking was again legalized.
Mardi Gras in the Nineteenth Century
In 1833, Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a wealthy plantation owner, solicited a large amount of money in order to help finance an organized Mardi Gras celebration.
It was not until 1837, however, that the first Mardi Gras Parade was staged. Two years later, a description of the 1839 Parade noted that it consisted of a single float. Nonetheless, it was considered to be a great success and apparently, the crowd roared hilariously as this somewhat crude float moved through the streets of the city.
The 1840s saw the evolution of the tossing of the beads. Legend has it that both colorful glass beads and almonds coated with sugar began being tossed into the crowds as a perversion of a much older English Renaissance-era custom. The original English custom was to hold a type of promenade, wherein the local aristocracy of a township would parade down the village main street, throwing candies and glass bead trinkets to the peasantry of the town. In the New Orleans version however, regular citizens would dress up as aristocrats as a way of mocking the original English tradition.
On Mardi Gras of 1857, the Mystick Krewe of Comus held its first parade. Comus is the oldest continuously active Mardi Gras organization and is considered the first Carnival krewe in the modern sense. (Krewe is an organization that puts on a parade and/or a ball for the Mardi Gras Carnival season.)
The Comus organization added beauty to Mardi Gras and demonstrated that it could be a safe and festive event. Comus also started the customs of having a secret Carnival society, having a parade with a unifying theme with floats, and of having a ball after the parade.
In 1872, two New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions made their first appearances: the King cake tradition and the introduction of purple, gold and green as the official colors of Mardi Gras.
The traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold are said to have been chosen by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanoff of Russia during a visit to New Orleans in 1872. These three colors also have powerful meanings: purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith.
King cakes first appeared after the Mardi Gras colors were selected. The traditional King cake is a coffee cake, and is oblong and braided. It is iced with a simple icing and covered with purple, green and gold sugar.
Each cake contains a hidden bean or small plastic baby, and custom tells that whoever finds it must either buy the next King cake or throw the next King cake party. One Mardi Gras organization uses the King cake tradition to choose the queen of its annual ball.
The late 1800s also saw the advent of women showing their breasts as the Times-Democrat decried the “degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets.” The practice was mostly limited to tourists in the upper Bourbon Street area.
In 1875, Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal state holiday.
Contemporary Mardi Gras
Today, Mardi Gras celebrations seem to get bigger and more elaborate every year. Each year the Mardi Gras season starts on January 6, also known as the Feast of the Ephiphany, Little Christmas or Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night Revelers, one of Carnival’s oldest Krewes, holds a masked ball to mark the occasion.
The weekend before Mardi Gras sees the the population of New Orleans more than double with visitors. Thursday night starts off with a bang with an all-women’s parade featuring the Krewe of Muses.
It is popular for its “throws” (highly sought after decorated shoes and other trinkets) and themes poking fun at politicians and celebrities. Friday night is the occasion of the large Krewe of Hermes and satirical Krewe D’État parades, ending with one of the fastest growing krewes, the Krewe of Morpheus. The first of the “super krewes”, Endymion, parades on Saturday night, with the celebrity-led Bacchus parade on Sunday night.
Monday is known as Lundi Gras (“Fat Monday”). The monarchs of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and Krewe of Rex arrive by boat on the Mississippi River front at the foot of Canal Street, where an all-day party is staged.
Uptown parades start with the parade of one of New Orleans’ most prestigious organizations, the Krewe of Proteus. Dating back to 1882, it is the second oldest krewe still parading in the city.
Mardi Gras Day which can fall on any Tuesday between February 3 and March 9 (depending on the date of Easter), feature some of the biggest celebrations and parades. Usually, the Zulu parade rolls first, followed by the Rex parade, followed by a number of smaller parading organizations featuring “truck floats”.
The formal end of Mardi Gras arrives with “the Meeting of the Courts”, a term describing the ceremony at which Rex and His Royal Consort, the King and Queen of Carnival, meet with the King and Queen of the Mistick Krewe of Comus.
Then, sadly and promptly at the stroke of midnight and at the end of Fat Tuesday, a mounted squad of New Orleans police officers make a show of clearing upper Bourbon Street where the bulk of out-of-town revelers congregate, announcing that Mardi Gras is officially over, as it is the start of Lent, commencing with Ash Wednesday.
But hey, don’t worry…they’ll do it all over again next year!