Ahhh!! Only in the South can you hear the words “Its Carnival Time” and immediately start humming the tune by Al Johnson. No, we dont mean the County Fair folks……. we are talking about the party of all parties – MARDI GRAS!
A bit of a history lesson on Mardi Gras:
Traditionally, Mardi Gras parades begin about 2 weeks prior to, and “roll” through, Fat Tuesday (French for Mardi Gras). Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday. Though there is a “Mardi Gras season”, to the locals, Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras refer to the same day.
Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with the French explorer Iberville. Mardi Gras had been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages, where it was a major holiday. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, from where he launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. On March 3 of 1699, Iberville had set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France. In honor of this important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras.
During the early 1800’s public celebrations of Mardi Gras centered around maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. The first documented parade occurred in 1837. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras gained a negative reputation because of violent behavior attributed to maskers during the 1840’s and 50’s. The situation became so bad that the press began calling for an end to the celebration.
In 1857 six New Orleaneans saved Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization. These six men were former members of the Cowbellians, an organization which had put on New Year’s Eve parades in Mobile since 1831. The Comus organization added beauty to Mardi Gras and demonstrated that it could be a safe and festive event. Comus was the first organization to use the term krewe to describe itself. 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. Comus was also the first organization to name itself after a mythological character. The celebration of Mardi Gras was interrupted by the Civil War, but in 1866 Comus returned.
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In 1870 the Twelfth Night Revelers made their appearance. In 1871 they began the custom of presenting a young woman with a golden bean hidden in a cake. This young woman was the first queen of Mardi Gras. This was also the origin of the king cake tradition.
In 1872 Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia visited New Orleans. This year the krewe of Rex made their debut and began the tradition of the “King of Carnival.” Rex also introduced purple, gold and green as the official colors of Mardi Gras. Rex was the first krewe to hold an organized daytime parade and introduced “If Ever I Cease To Love” as the Mardi Gras anthem. One of the high points of Rex is the arrival of the Rex King on a riverboat. 1872 also saw the debut of the Knights of Momus on New Year’s Eve.
Next Time: Local Mardi Gras Traditions
Have you ever been to Mardi Gras? Its not for the faint of heart let me tell ya! Now, I am not talking about just what you see on Bourbon Street (which is usually the focus of the National News)….. oh no, there is more to Mardi Gras than just Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras traditions are as varied as the types of tomatoes we can plant in our gardens or the breeds of chickens we have roaming around in the backyard!