Mardi Gras, ‘Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler’

Today is Mardi Gras, Let the Good Times Roll! But, what is this big party and how did it all begin?

Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season.  This ritual of feasting began in Venice and Rome and quickly spread to France in the Middle Ages. This feast was  known as the “Boeuf Gras” or “fatted calf” in France, when French-Canadien explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived near New Orleans in 1699.  By 1703,  this tiny settlement was celebrating the very first Boeuf Gras. By 1704, secret societies were formed, the first being the Boeuf Gras Society, and on the holiday, paraded a huge bull’s head on a cart, pushed down the street by sixteen men. Later, an actual bull draped in white, signaled the coming of Lent and fasting, and was paraded through the town. 

By 1740, Mardi Gras was officially celebrated in New Orleans, when the governor established elegant society balls, which is the basis for the balls held during Mardi Gras in New Orleans today. The first “carnival” in 1781,  is attributed to the Spanish colonial government that formed the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association, which established social clubs and carnival organizations in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  By the 1830’s the carnival street processions included masked, male, merry-makers in carriages and on horseback. Although we think of Mardi Gras as  a wild party time before Lent, there are many well established traditions.

The official colors of New Orleans Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold. These colors were picked in 1872 in part to honor the Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanof, who visited New Orleans at Mardi Gras.  During his visit, the people were asked to display the colors, which represent justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold), on Mardi Gras Day.

The early social organizations that hosted the balls and put on the parades were later organized by neighborhood, interest or involvement in the community. Known as “Krewes,” from the English word crews, these organized revelers were first all male, but by the 1900’s there were all female “Krewes” as well. The two best known Krewes are the Krewe of the Rex (King) and the Krewe of Zulu.

Why the masks at Mardi Gras? In the early, early days, participants wore masks to allow them to be themselves, (or act stupid) and mingle with whomever they wished, escaping social constraints.  Another words, you could act like a fool on this day and not lose your social status. Today, any person who rides on a float during a Mardi Gras parade, other than celebrities or Krewe royalty, is required by law to disguise his or her face. Some Krewes wear masks while others choose to paint their faces. And now there are over 70 parades in New Orleans, held over the days before Lent!

What about those beads and baubles? Originally glass beads were thrown during the parades, but by the 20th century plastic beads were used. In 1960, Doubloons were thrown by the Krewe of Rex. These coins featured the Krewe’s founding date, emblem and name on one side, and the year and theme of the parade on the other. Today that tradition has grown into throwing just about any trinket. The Zulu coconut or “Golden Nugget” was another tradition. The meat was removed from the coconuts and the hand painted coconut shell was tossed into the crowds. This tradition was banned in 1988 due to insurance issues, but was later allowed. Other Krewes have signature throws, which are often hand decorated by members. The Krewe of Muses throws highly sought-after hand-decorated shoes.

What are the Flambeaux? Before there were street lights in New Orleans, slaves or free people of color walked in front of the floats carrying large torches so the revelers could see the parades that rolled at night. Today, flambeaux dance in front of the floats to entertain the crowds, rather than light the way.

There are Mardi Gras Indians…….. Tribes formed by African American communities, who were excluded from traditional parades and Krewes, were along the parade route to poke fun at Krewe royalty and governing structures.  There are 30 to 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans today. The tribes compete to see who can make the most elaborate suits, or handmade costumes incorporating thousands of feathers each. They now are part of the parade.

Here are some of my photos from New Orleans. I have never been there at Mardi Gras. I think the crowds would be overwhelming and all the hoopla too much for me. One thing I do know, there is lively, bold color everywhere. The city is color, color, and more color! Even the plants look more colorful to me! And there is a vibe found here that is nowhere else. The pace is lively, and music can be heard day and night. Life is throughly enjoyed here at any given time. So here are some of the colors on the buildings and homes……….

The Vibrant Colors of NOLA
The Vibrant Colors of NOLA

and the plants……

The Vibrant Colors of NOLA

And finally what do they eat during Mardi Gras?  Let them eat cake! The traditional French, gallette des rois, or cake of the kings, was the favorite at Mardi Gras! Traditional king cakes are decorated in purple, green and gold sugar icing.  They may be plain or filled with fruit, pecans, or cream cheese. A plastic baby trinket is placed inside the cake and whomever gets the piece of cake with the baby must buy the next cake or throw the next party.  Over 500,000 king cakes are sold every year in New Orleans and over 50,000 are ordered and shipped out of state! Wow, that’s a lot of cake!

Mardi Gras, NOLA

I hope you have enjoyed learning a little about Mardi Gras! Enjoy the day! See you next time!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sherry Felix says:

    Nice to learn about it ☺


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