Origins and History of Mardi Gras

When Iberville first set up camp near the future La Nouvelle Orléans,
 he named the site Pointe du Mardi Gras. The date was Mardi Gras day, 1699.

 

Original Revelers

The revels began (where so many revels did) in ancient Rome. Long before the Christian era, young men in disguise roamed the streets making merry during the winter Saturnalia. In the third century A.D., the emperor Aurelius fixed December 25- the winter solstice under the Julian calendar- as the birthday of the Invincible Sun, which the Romans worshipped. The dates of the Saturnalia and the Sun festival roughly collided, making for a weeklong, merry midwinter holiday season.

A couple of centuries later, the early Christian Church cleverly consolidated and converted these pagan feasts (as it had so many others) to a Christian holiday, declaring December 25 the birthday of the Son of God and Man. They called it "Christ Mass," or Christmas. The Epiphany, the visit of the three kings to the Christ Child, was then celebrated on January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas. In medieval Europe, the

Twelve Days of Christmas became a series of celebrations presided over by an impromptu king of the festivities, the Lord of Misrule.

During the revels, small tokens were distributed, suggesting the gifts brought by the three kings. The goodies dispensed by the Lord of Misrule and his court prefigure current carnival throws.

Bals masqués, or masked balls, became the pinnacle of Twelfth Night revelry in Renaissance Italy and spread to France and England. Early New Orleans Creoles called them les bals des rois, for the kings who presided over the masked merrymaking. A mock king for the night was chosen by chance: whoever found a coin or a bean in a piece of special "king cake" (named for the three kings and the king of Twelfth Night), was crowned monarch of Twelfth Night. His queen he either chose himself or was given through the luck of the draw: the girl who found a pea in her cake was crowned consort. The cake, bean and pea are ancient symbols of fertility.

Later, the masques and entertainment continued through Shrove Tuesday, which the French called mardi gras or "fat Tuesday," the day before Lent. Ironically, the solemn, austere period of Lent created Carnival, which means literally, "farewell to meat." All carnival revelries began with the frenzied overindulgence of people about to bid a temporary, but very fond, adieu to the pleasures of the flesh.

Another irony, the date for Easter (which determines Lent and therefore Mardi Gras) was determined by the Spring Equinox, a major pagan festival of ancient Rome, which the early Church characteristically morphed into a Christian feast day.

Mardi Gras falls between February 3 and March 9, always 46 days before Easter- the total of the 40 days of Lent plus the six Sundays in that period (no abstinence on Sunday). The date for Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox.

Carnival Comes to the Crescent City

When the French explorer, Pierre le Moyne, the Sieur de la Iberville, set up a camp about 60 miles south of the future La Nouvelle Orléans, he named the site Pointe du Mardi Gras. It was apropos, since the date was March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras day.

The Europeans brought their carnival customs, and Creole society was soon masking and dancing at private balls while revelers in disguise roamed the streets.

The year 1837 marked the first documented procession of masked revelers in New Orleans. By the mid 1840s, the carousing and drunken streetcapades had grown so wild, relatively sober citizens lobbied to ban all public carnival celebrations.

But six men from Mobile, where Mardi Gras celebrations had been held as early as 1708 and parades since 1831, stepped in. Together with thirteen New Orleanians, they founded the first Mardi Gras organization and named it for a reference to "Comus with his crew" from John Milton's poem, "A Mask Presented at Ludlow-Castle." In Roman mythology, Comus was the god of mirth and revelry. A follower of Dionysus, he was represented as a drunken youth bearing a torch. In Milton's poetic masque, Comus is a rascal, the son of wine god Bacchus and Circe, daughter of the Sun.

With a little whimsy and archaic spelling, the Mobile Six formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, and in 1857 they paraded by torchlight on Mardi Gras evening on two mule-drawn floats.

They decided the parade wasn't enough. The Krewe of Comus wanted something grander to celebrate Mardi Gras, so they formed a secret society in keeping with their Masonic origins, and issued 3,000 invitations to a ball which became the event of the year for New Orleans society. The first queen of Comus was Mildred Lee, daughter of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose exploits the city still venerates with a monument at Lee Circle.

The parade and ball, with themes from mythology and literature, were so successful that party-minded New Orleanians decided more was better, and the krewes of Twelfth Night Revelers, Proteus, and Momus were formed. Their parades rolled through dusky evenings and dark nights lit only by torches. But that was about to change.

Russian Rule Yet

It was by sheer chance that Alexis Romanov, Grand Duke of Russia, landed in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The year was 1872, and he was in single-minded pursuit of his latest amour, actress Lydia Thompson.

Nevertheless, to celebrate his visit, a group of 40 businessmen funded a daytime parade and called it "Rex," Latin for "king." The first arrival of Rex was a surprise to most citizens. They learned of it on Lundi Gras (the day before Mardi Gras) through an announcement in the local newspapers ordering that normal business be shut down and the city handed over to "Rex, King of Carnival."

In the duke's honor, the newly formed Rex organization adopted the Romanov family colors of purple, green, and gold (which represent justice, fidelity, and power, respectively). They commissioned a band to play the Duke's favorite love song, "If Ever I Cease to Love," from the play Bluebeard, in which Thompson had a role.

After Alexis left, the colors stuck, the gala day parade continued, and a masked ball was added the next year in 1873. The song became the Mardi Gras anthem and theme of Rex, who mounted a permanent throne as King of Carnival and Monarch of Merriment with the motto Pro bono publico, "For the common good."

Amazingly, Rex's first arrival via riverboat at the foot of Canal Street, is still repeated every Lundi Gras. The mayor turns the city and its keys over to him in a public ceremony. That's how Mardi Gras became a legal holiday in New Orleans.

The King of Cakes

King cakes came to New Orleans with the French, who substituted a tiny baby Jesus for the medieval bean. The cakes began as round, custard-filled pastries decorated with crowns. (These have lately become popular once again, made by French pastry shops around the city.)

Later, a brioche pastry was rolled into an open circle like a crown, decorated with jewel-like sugars, and it was in this form that the king cake became a New Orleans carnival staple, made and served only between January 6 (the Feast of the Three Kings) and Mardi Gras.

Within all New Orleans king cakes, there is either a bean or a small plastic baby. At the Twelfth Night Revelers ball, which kicks off the carnival season on January 6, whoever gets the golden bean is the queen. Her maids are designated by silver beans. (Now, of course, the court is chosen in advance, unlike their medieval counterparts who found the tokens at random.)

For two centuries, king cakes have been served at the Queen's breakfasts which follow private Mardi Gras balls. Guests at any party given in the Mardi Gras season are almost guaranteed a slice of king cake. King cakes are even appearing at New Year's Eve feasts, a sweet finish to the fireworks.

For decades, the king cake set off a round of parties in the teen crowd. Whoever got the baby or bean at the first soirée gave a king cake party the following weekend. The chain continued until Mardi Gras. In some circles, the tradition lives on.

This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories to New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.