What is your favorite holiday? Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Years? I bet if you asked anyone from New Orleans and the surrounding areas, their answer would be Mardi Gras. “Party Gras” is the preferred name for most college students. Although the weekend before Mardi Gras day is actually one continuous party, there is a much deeper meaning to my favorite holiday. Carnival season is full of rich culture, history, and happiness.
From the mayor’s toast to Rex, King of Carnival at Gallier Hall , to the Zulu King, to Bacchus and Endymion, to the meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus at the Ball of the Mystick Krewe of Comus, to the flambeaux and the St. Aug marching band, Mardi Gras history has always been a fascination of mine and part of my life. According to historians, Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to the ancient Romans. They celebrated the Lupercalia, a circus like festival.
When Rome embraced Christianity, the fathers decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of pagan rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them. Carnival became a period of abandon and merriment that preceded the penance of Lent. Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese that remained in their homes, preparing for several weeks of eating only fish and fasting. In France, the day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday. The word “carnival,” was another another common name for the pre-Lenten festivities. Many historians believe that the first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when the French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed in what is now Louisiana, just south of the New Orleans. They held a small celebration and dubbed the spot Point du Mardi Gras. In the decades that followed, New Orleans and other French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties, masked balls and lavish dinners.
On Mardi Gras in 1827, a group of students put on colorful costumes and danced through the streets of New Orleans, emulating the revelry they’d observed while visiting Paris. Ten years later, the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, a tradition that continues to this day. In 1857, a secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats, setting the tone for future public celebrations in the city.
Since then, krewes have remained a fixture of the Carnival scene throughout Louisiana. In 1872, a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to parade in the first daytime parade. They introduced the Mardi Gras colors of purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. The identity of Rex is secret till the day before Fat Tuesday. Being the King of Rex is one of the highest honors in New Orleans, and he is chosen for his prominent standing in the community. Most Mardi Gras Krewes today developed from private social clubs that have restrictive membership policies.
Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by its members, we call it the “Greatest Free Show on Earth! ” On the Christian calendar, the 12th day after Christmas is celebrated as the date that the gift-bearing Magi visited the baby Jesus. This day, January 6, is known by several names, including “Epiphany”, “Twelfth Night”, or “Kings Day”. The New Orleans tradition is believed to have begun in the 1870’s. As part of this celebration, it is now traditional to bake a cake in honor of the three kings – the King Cake.
King Cakes are oval-shaped to symbolize the unity of faiths. Each cake is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors – purple representing justice, green representing faith, and gold representing power. A small baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, is traditionally hidden inside each King Cake. January 6 marks the beginning of Carnival season. Mardi Gras balls are also a huge tradition during carnival season. Each Krewe holds a ball honoring their king and queen, the court, and also the debutantes. Some Krewes are still secretive and only the members of the society know who the King is.
Carnival tradition is for the mayor to give Rex the keys to the city. Rex and the mayor have a traditional toast at Gallier Hall, which is the official proclamation of the beginning of Mardi Gras. During the toast, Rex gives all city workers the day off and commands everyone to have a good time. Mardi Gras day is the traditional day for masking. The costumes are elaborate, Sequins and feathers rule the day. Families and friends often mask as a group. Its not unusual to see a marching box of Crayola Crayons, assorted Hubig’s pies, or a group of bare chested firemen carrying a ten foot hose.
Anything goes on Mardi Gras day. I feel so at home sitting in a fold out chair on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground, bloody mary in hand, at 6 am on Mardi Gras day next to my family, watching everyone pass by in their Fat Tuesday costumes. So mark your calanders! Carnival season is early this year, Fat Tuesday is February 21. So have fun, call strangers your family, eat and drink till you can’t anymore, but this year, pay more attention to the details and traditions of the Carnival season.