What is Mardi Gras and why has this party lasted over 2000 years? Here are 5 highlights of this amazing celebration.
There are many theories as to how Mardi Gras began, but some might argue that it was born in 753 BC in a grotto at the foot of the Palatine, where a she-wolf was said to have suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of the almighty Rome. And each February 15, with the wolf as the city’s totem, the citizens of Rome would celebrate Lupercalia, a tribal fertility and purification festival that included plenty of rowdiness and celebration — as well as a love lottery where young men could win, through the luck of the draw, the companionship of women for a year. Of course, as Christianity gained influence, the pagan celebration had to take on another face, and so began Carnival — a period of celebration just before the penitential season of Lent, when everyone would have to be on their best behavior for at least 40 days.
This new tradition stretched across the Roman Empire, all the way to Gaul, which included modern-day France. And it was there, during the Middle Ages, that what became known as Mardi Gras was officially created. There were two types of Mardi Gras celebrations: those of the nobility and those of the peasants. In both cases, Carnival officially began on the 12th day after Christmas, known as Twelfth Night, and ended on Fat Tuesday, the day of fun and feasts prior to the fasting that came with Lent, a time marked by the arrival of Ash Wednesday.
So ingrained was the importance of this celebration that in 1699 when the French explorer Iberville and his men moored their ships some 60 miles from modern-day New Orleans, they were quick to recognize that back home on that very day Mardi Gras was being celebrated. As a result, they named the area Point du Mardi Gras, heralding the first known Mardi Gras celebration in the New World.
Of course, as Louisiana was further colonized by the French, these traditions were able to gain a more solid footing. For instance, as New Orleans became established, so too did the elaborate balls and feasts of the upper classes, which included the now-infamous King Cake, or Gateau des Rois. In the more rural communities around South Louisiana, now inhabited by the Cajuns (or the Acadian refugees of French Canada), traditional begging, mischief and pranks of the Courir de Mardi Gras were able to take root. And from these humble beginnings, the decadent and expansive parades that take place across Louisiana each year were created, with an entirely new type of nobility rising to the occasion.
Today the city of New Orleans alone stands to benefit from the $500 million economic impact of Mardi Gras, with the last season boasting some 135,000 participants in more than 50 parades featuring nearly 600 marching bands and over 1,000 floats. But, as proven year after year, Mardi Gras is more than a party — it’s a celebration steeped in history and kept alive by fervent believers in tradition, creativity, great food and plenty of (mostly) harmless debauchery.
So what is Mardi Gras? Here are five highlights of the celebration.
1. King Cake
Let’s start with the modest King Cake, or Gateau des Rois, as it was known to the French. The current tradition includes a small plastic baby hidden in the cake, representing either the baby Jesus or the New Year, depending on whom you ask. It’s generally accepted that whoever discovers the baby in their slice must either purchase the next cake or host the next Mardi Gras party.
But it wasn’t always a small plastic baby hidden in this treasured confection, often decorated with purple, gold and green sugar (the traditional Mardi Gras colors, which we’ll get to in a minute). Instead, it was the humble bean. The tradition of baking a bean into a cake goes all the way back to the ancient Romans, who used this trick to determine who might be chosen “king” of their Saturnalian revels. Naturally, this tradition spread across their empire, all the way to France, where the Gateau des Rois would be sliced into as many pieces as there were guests — plus one for God. When the tradition reached New Orleans, it was put to even better use: it determined the Carnival’s royalty and who was to host the next Mardi Gras ball.
2. Carnival Balls
You can view a collection of Mardi Gras ball costumes above the famed restaurant Arnaud’s in New Orleans. Ask for the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum.
Pre-Lenten balls began in the early 1700s, around the same time New Orleans was founded by brothers Bienville and Iberville. Also known as Bals de Roi, or the King’s Ball, these elaborate celebrations traditionally began on Twelfth Night with the Feast of the Epiphany and were frequently hosted by families and friends at plantations, hotels and the French Opera House (which burned down in 1919, to everyone’s dismay). At the Twelfth Night Ball, a King Cake would be sliced and the finder of the bean would be proclaimed King of the Revelries for that Carnival season. That individual would also be responsible for hosting the next ball, where another cake would be sliced, another bean would be discovered, and another ball would be planned by whosoever found “la feve.” This pattern would continue all the way through the Carnival season leading to the grandest masquerade ball on Mardi Gras evening.
In 1871 a new tradition began in which a golden bean locket would be hidden in a King Cake to be served to all the unmarried women. Whoever found the locket was named Queen of the Ball and crowned with a wreath of oak leaves. Later silver bean lockets were also hidden in the cake, giving other women an opportunity to become maids of honor. These were coveted positions, especially throughout the early 19th century, when these balls became more decadent each year.
Drawing from mythology, literature, nature and history, each ball was themed with extravagant stagings of famous events, such as the destruction of Atlantis and the release of a Kraken supported by 50 men, all to entertain the royal court of Carnival and their esteemed guests. Known by some as the Belle Epoque of Mardi Gras, these events were renowned for their splendor and attention to detail. However, after the French Opera House burned down before the highly anticipated Carnival ball of 1920, these bastions of Creole culture were forever changed. Of course, by then themed parades had risen in popularity.
3. Rex & Carnival Parades
The first Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans during the 19th century consisted mainly of masked revelers, on foot or horseback, causing mischief in the city. When their activities turned violent, it almost put an end to Mardi Gras in New Orleans altogether. It took a few secret Carnival societies, known as Krewes, to save it, as well as the first King of Carnival — Rex. It was the Rex Organization that united the concepts of Carnival and made Mardi Gras what it is today with colorful and exciting parades throughout the Crescent City, partially in response to the 1872 visit of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff.
Not only did Rex bring some order to the chaotic street parades of the day, but he also established the Mardi Gras brand, starting with its colors and flag, which are used to this day. He chose purple for justice and royalty, green for faith, and gold for power, incorporating all three of these colors into the Carnival flag. He also introduced the song “If Ever I Cease to Love” as the Carnival’s anthem. And for his Queen, he began the tradition of crowning a debutante. More importantly, Rex would issue the official proclamation of Carnival, inviting his subjects to celebrate with daytime parades and evening balls all true to their motto: “Pro Bono Publico,” or “For the public good.”
These changes promoted Mardi Gras to become a major part of New Orleans culture, and in 1875 Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act, making these celebrations a legal holiday throughout the state. And with each year, the parades became more elaborate, with floats of increasing grandeur. You can see these floats and learn more about Mardi Gras parades by visiting Mardi Gras World, which welcomes over 150,000 visitors each year.
4. Zulu, Bacchus & the Mardi Gras Indians
In 1949, Louis Armstrong was declared King of the Zulu parade. Photograph by Celeste Broadway, courtesy of Arthur Hardy.
While Rex may have started a new parade tradition, soon other Krewes began to rise to the occasion. Then Rex wasn’t the only King making his way down Canal Street. Starting in 1909 with William Story as their King, the African-American Krewe of Zulu began their own parades with their King holding a banana stalk scepter and wearing a lard can as a crown, making fun of the pomp and circumstance surrounding Rex. Maria C. Montoya wrote in The Times-Picayune, “In 1960, civil rights activists called for a boycott of Zulu, arguing that its caricaturish blackface motif was offensive to African-Americans. The club continued to parade, but membership steadily dwindled. By 1965, there were only 15 members still committed to the organization. Gradually the protests faded and support from the community returned, with local civil rights icons Ernest J. Wright and Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. joining Zulu’s ranks.” Today the Zulus are a must-see for serious parade-goers eager to catch a treasured Zulu coconut.
In 1969 another Krewe began to shake up what Rex had established, not only by introducing the largest floats in Mardi Gras history but also by bringing Hollywood celebrities into the fold. That Krewe was Bacchus, which managed to make Carnival more accessible to the public and tourists alike. To make this possible, Bacchus rejected private balls, choosing open and inclusive supper dances instead. Tickets could be purchased by anyone who wanted to participate, setting a precedent for future Krewes eager to cash in on the booming tourism industry of New Orleans and its now-famous Mardi Gras celebrations.
But while the Krewes grew in popularity and prestige, many African-Americans in New Orleans still found it difficult to participate in Carnival. As a result, they created tribes as Mardi Gras Indians. While it’s difficult to pin down exactly how this tradition began, some claim this especially unique New Orleans fixture is tied to the connection between native tribes who aided runaway slaves before the Civil War. Today these Mardi Gras Indians are some of the most elusive and mysterious fixtures of Carnival, with their brightly colored costumes and percussion-focused music popping up sporadically throughout Fat Tuesday. Each costume is handmade with brightly colored ostrich feathers, elaborate beading and plenty of rhinestones sewn by hand. These pieces, which can weigh over 100 pounds, take the entire year to construct and are meant to be worn only once. Each Mardi Gras the various tribes compete for best costume, as well as best music, through elaborate “battles” across the city that tourists can only hope to come across.
5. The Cajun Experience
Of course, if you’d rather avoid the crowds and chaos of the New Orleans Mardi Gras experience, there’s always the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras, which takes place across Cajun country. Visitors to cities such as Iota, Mamou and Church Point are in for a special treat should they decide to observe these hyper-local, community-focused celebrations, which include masked Cajuns on horseback or flatbed trailers traveling from house to house begging for ingredients for a large gumbo to be shared by all (music and dance included). Pranks, mischief and singing are also involved, but the highlight of this ancient tradition is the chasing of the chickens, in which costumed (and often drunk) individuals try to catch live chickens for the pot. It’s a unique experience that should not be missed, especially since each costume is made by hand, with each rural town putting their own spin on their Mardi Gras celebrations.