I have to tell you I am a no nonsense kind of gal. Wear makeup only on special occasions, I keep my body covered, don’t like large crowds and haven’t drank alcohol in 23 years. So, when it came to me to write about Mardi Gras, I was a tad taken back with myself. I said, SELF…Are you sure?? Self said yup, go learn something! (a nod to NCIS: New Orleans)
So the task at hand today is to figure out what is Mardi Gras; besides the chest baring, bead slinging, week of drunkenness. Hold on tight, cause we are going to Laissez les bons temps rouler(Let the good times roll)! Which, by the way, there is no reply to that saying!
Mardi Gras began as a Christian holiday and cultural phenomenon, dating back 1000’s of years to the pagan spring and fertility rites. Often referred to as Carnival and celebrated in many countries all over the world with large Roman Catholic populations, is the day before the beginning of Lent: the season of fasting. Binging on the meat, eggs, milk and cheese which remained in their homes, they were preparing to fast. And if you wanted to know what the French called the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, well, they called it “Fat Tuesday”! Which is the day the huge parades are held!
Many historians believe the first American Mardi Gras was on March 3, 1699, celebrating the landing of the French explorers Iberville and Bienville in Louisiana. They held a small celebration and dubbed it Pont du Mardi Gras. Since then, the Orleans and French settlements have began to celebrate with road events, masked balls and lavish dinners. Sadly, when the Spanish took control of New Orleans, they abolished these festivities and remained in place until Louisiana became a state in 1812.
In 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets New Orleans, imitating the festivities they had seen while visiting Paris. 1837 marked the first Mardi Gras parade, a tradition which continues nowadays. In 1857, a secret society of New Orleans, referred to as the Mistick Krewe of Comus, geared up a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession with marching bands and rolling floats, setting the tone for future celebrations within the city. Many customs which remain today, including throwing beads (see, I told you there would be bead slinging) and other trinkets, carrying masks, adorning floats and eating King Cake.
Let’s just check out what that King Cake is all about. King cake is eaten January 6th, in honor of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, which marks the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, delivering gifts to baby Jesus. (The plastic baby hidden inside king cakes today is a nod to this story.) King cake also appears on tables throughout the Carnival season, which runs from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent), at which point practitioners typically abstain from such indulgences as cake.
Back to the story of Mardi Gras…
Louisiana is the only state Mardi Gras is considered a legal holiday and plays host to one of the biggest public festivities, drawing 1000’s of tourists and revelers each year. This year Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, February 13th (stay another night and celebrate Valentines in the Big Easy).
So, let’s take a look at the main traditions of Mardi Gras:
Tossing of the Beads
Just what are these beads that are flung about? Traditional Mardi Gras beads are purple, green, and gold colors. The purple symbolizes justice; the green represents faith; and the gold signifies power. Just to let you know how many beads are flung…New Orleans gets around 25 MILLION pounds of beads. Given those little beads weigh next to nothing, that’s a LOT of beads! Now, ladies, baring your chest is a “recent” addition to the festivities; not really becoming a thing until the 1970’s, you know, Women’s Lib! It is has been said the parties on the floats throw beads to those how show off their goods. Guys, let’s be clear here, you can bare your chest, however, dropping your drawers for more beads is not a good thing and may land you in a jail cell.
One of the many bead trees
Beads left over from the parades
Tradition of Masks
Those Masks! Have you seen them! Oh my goodness! Some of them are insane! This would be one thing I would partake in! Masks are a huge part of the Mardi Gras culture. During early Mardi Gras celebrations, masks were a way for their wearers to escape their social rankings and demands. Mask wearers would mingle with people of all different classes and could be whomever they wanted to be, at least for a few days.
Note to self: In New Orleans, float riders are required by law to have a mask on. On Fat Tuesday, it is legal for all Mardi Gras attendees to wear masks, however, many store owners post signs requesting those entering to remove their masks first.
The Flambeaux Tradition
Flambeaux, means flame or torch and was the tradition of carrying shredded rope soaked in pitch through the streets at nighttime so revelers could enjoy festivities after dark. Slaves and free African Americans were the original carriers of the torches as they were trying to earn a little money. Revelers tossed coins at the carriers, thanking them for lighting the way for the floats.
Today’s flame carriers have turned the tradition into a performance, dancing and spinning their kerosene lights, something the original parade planners hadn’t done.
Rex, The King of Carnival
Every year a king is crowned by the Rex Organization, and is always a prominent person in New Orleans. He is given the symbolic Key to the City by the Mayor. Who is this Rex? Well, Rex, was the first king of the Carnival ascending to the throne in 1872. History has it that the first Rex was actually the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia who, befriended U.S. Army officer George Armstrong Custer during a planned hunting expedition in the Midwest. The Duke’s visit to New Orleans was organized by businessmen hoping to lure tourism and business to their city after the Civil War.
Handing Out Zulu Coconuts
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is one of the oldest traditionally black krewes (parade hosts) in Mardi Gras history. 1910 is the first reference of these treasures, the Zulu Coconuts or Golden Nuggets, were left in their original hairy state, but years later, Zulu members started painting and decorating them. Getting a Zulu coconut is one of the most sought after traditions during Mardi Gras.
Krewes (especially in New Orleans) a private social club that sponsors balls, parades, etc., as part of the Mardi Gras festivities.
Just to finish it up, let’s take a look at some more of the costumes
Sorry this one was a bit longer than most, but there was so much information! After learning all I did, I am still not hip on going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans; I do know that Walt Disney World does have a Mardi Gras parade, I may go there instead.
“It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that anAmerican has not seen the United States until he has seenMardi-Gras in New Orleans.”
*these photos are not mine, no copy write infringement meant”
I'm a wife, mom and grandma. I'm a stay at home wife with big dreams and a teeny tiny budget. I have a desire to travel the world, become a better me and to see my grandkids grow up. My favorite quote is, "A Wish is a Dream Your Heart Makes"
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