Mardi Gras Lingo

Why purple, green and gold for Carnival colors? When is "lundi gras"? Learn the lingo of Mardi Gras and boeuf up your New Orleans vocabulary!

Ash Wednesday: The first day of Lent, it's the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Catholics typically attend church, and a priest blesses them by drawing a cross of ashes on the forehead, a symbol of penitence and the frailty of life.

Ball or bal masque: A masked ball, where a krewe's court is presented to the club members. Old-line krewes throw decorous balls, often introducing debutante daughters of members. Attendance is by invitation only and limited to krewe members and their guests. A few newer krewes have refashioned the balls into bashes with celebrity guests and nationally-recognized entertainment, some of which are open to the public for the price of a ticket. To emphasize the format of these new celebrations the krewes renamed the parties: Endymion throws an Extravaganza, Bacchus a Bash, and Orpheus the Orpheuscapade.

Boeuf Gras (boof grah): French for "fatted bull." Since the Middle Ages, a fatted bull has heralded the feasting and festivities that precede the fasting and penitence of Lent. The fatted bull was killed on Monday, and the crowds gorged themselves on their last meat, trying to consume it all before midnight when Lent began. The Boeuf Gras is a traditional theme float in the Rex parade.

Call-outs: Partners for masked members of old-guard krewes are sent formal invitations prior to each ball. They are then "called out" from the audience to dance with the krewe members who invited them to the ball. With each dance, krewe members give favors to their call-out partners.

Captain: The chief organizer of a carnival krewe or organization.

Carnival: From Latin, it literally means "farewell to meat." Metaphorically, it's a temporary adieu to the pleasures of the flesh, as the multitudes gather to overindulge before Lent. The carnival season begins on Twelfth Night (January 6) and culminates on Mardi Gras day, Fat Tuesday.

Colors of Mardi Gras: Because the first Rex parade honored a Russian prince, the New Orleans Mardi Gras adopted the colors of the royal house of Romanov: purple, green and gold for justice, faith and power, respectively.

Court Ball Royalty: The king, dukes, queen, maids and pages of a krewe ball, which change each year. Only the Court of Rex is called the "Carnival Court."

Den: Once a secret location, a den is generally a large warehouse where a parading krewe's floats are built and stored.

Doubloons: These commemorative coins struck for individual krewes are designed with the krewe crest or emblem on one side and the parade and/or ball theme on the other. Some also imprint mottoes; for Rex, it's Pro bono publico, "For the common good." The Krewe of Rex tossed the first parade doubloons in 1960. Now usually made of aluminum, some have been minted of bronze, sterling and real gold, given as call-out favors during balls. Rex alone has minted over eighteen million doubloons since 1960 and now tosses out about 600,000 on Mardi Gras day.

Favor: Krewe souvenirs given to guests attending the ball. From small costume jewelry pins to special doubloons, favors can be anything a krewe member wants to give his partner. On occasion, favors have even been extravagant items of real jewelry.

Flag: Notice the purple, green and gold flags flying outside homes around the city? Only former kings and queens of carnival have the right to fly the ones with crowns. The Crescent City is full of past, present and future royalty.

Flambeaux (plural, flam-boe): Multipronged long metal torches fueled by naphtha or kerosene and secured by straps slung about the waist. Before portable generators and battery-operated lights, they were the only way to illuminate the floats of night parades. Traditionally carried by white-robed African Americans, they began as a symbol of Haiti's independence, won in 1791 after slaves held a torchlight parade led by their priests.

Floats: Mobile platforms or trucks, each extravagantly decorated to depict one subject related to the parade's theme that year. For instance, Pinocchio might dominate a float in a parade of fairytales or children's literature. Popular themes include mythology, history, fairytales, and pop culture. Masked krewe dress in accordance with the parade theme or float subject.

Go-Cup: Plastic or paper cup. It's legal to drink alcohol in the streets of the Big Easy as long as the container isn't breakable. If you're going to stroll and drink, ask the bartender for a go-cup.

King Cake: A party staple from January 6 through Mardi Gras day, the cake is named for the three kings who visited the Christ Child and whose feast (the Epiphany) is celebrated on January 6, the Twelfth Night after Christmas. Traditionally, the cake is a brioche pastry baked in a circle, suggesting a crown (although for convenience, large ones are oval). They are sprinkled with gem-like sugar crystals in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. A plastic baby (symbol of the Christ Child), or in some cases a bean, is baked inside. By custom, the one who finds it throws the next king cake party. Lately, the brioche recipe has been supplemented by a coffee-cake ring alternative. French settlers brought the gâteau des rois to Louisiana in the 18th century. Their original round, flaky pastry pie filled with almond crème and topped by a paper crown can be found in French pastry shops around the city.

Krewe: A variation of the word "crew," carnival organizations, all private and non-profit, are known as krewes. The word was invented with a little creative spelling in 1857 by the first New Orleans carnival organization. The founders of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, named their group for a reference to "Comus with his crew" from John Milton's poem, "A Mask Presented at Ludlow-Castle."

Lundi Gras: French for "Fat Monday," it's the day before Mardi Gras, when the revels intensify after the weekend parades. Today, both Rex King of Carnival and the King and Queen of Zulu arrive via riverboats. The City of New Orleans hosts a free bash in Spanish Plaza outside Riverwalk, where the live entertainment features some of the Big Easy's best musicians. During the festivities, the mayor presents the keys of the city, declaring Mardi Gras a legal holiday and the domain of Rex, who officially begins his reign of merry madness. The party shifts into high gear with great food and fireworks. In the evening, the venerable Proteus and spectacular Orpheus parades roll.

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday: Rex rules, but marching clubs like the Jefferson City Buzzards and Pete Fountain's Half Fast Marching Club meander around town, alternating between playing and hitting the bars while they trade beads or paper flowers for smooches. Parades other than Rex roll through the city - Zulu, the Krewe of Elks and the Krewe of Crescent City take over New Orleans. Others make merry in Metairie and in adjacent parishes. The masses don costumes skewed from elegant to outrageous. The elaborate regalia of the Mardi Gras Indians flash across the landscape in neighborhoods throughout the city. And downtown, the Bourbon Street Awards go to the best drag costume, usually loaded with more spangles than a Liberace ensemble and more elaborate headdress than a Las Vegas showgirl. No matter how wild, the celebrations end at midnight, when Ash Wednesday begins.

Mardi Gras Indians: Beginning in the 18th century, runaway slaves were sometimes taken in by local Native Americans. In homage to their saviors, African Americans began to band together in tribal krewes like the Wild Magnolias, Wild Tchoupitoulas and the Wild West, headed by chiefs rather than captains. Fashioning the incredibly elaborate costumes of feathers and beads, is a family affair, and the custom is handed down from father to son. The feathered show usually takes wing near Claiborne and Orleans Avenues.

Maskers: Masked and costumed krewe members in parades or at balls.

Neutral Ground: Grassy medians where crowds stand to watch the parades and beg shamelessly for carnival throws. When the Americans arrived in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, they were unwelcome to the Europeans and Creoles who inhabited the French Quarter (then, the entire city of New Orleans). So the immigrants settled across Canal Street and established what is now the Central Business and Arts District. Canal Street then became the "neutral ground" in the clash of cultures. Ever since, New Orleans has been a city sans medians. Here, we have only neutral grounds.

Parade: A procession of floats, maskers, horses, motorcycles, marching bands, flambeaux carriers and dancers. Parades begin about twelve days before Mardi Gras and end on Mardi Gras Day.

Rex: Latin for "king," Rex is King of Carnival. Also known as the "Monarch of Merriment," Rex officially misrules over Mardi Gras after receiving the keys to city from the mayor on Lundi Gras. He is chosen by the inner circle of the School of Design, the organization that sponsors the Rex parade. His identity is a closely guarded secret until Mardi Gras day, when the local papers flash photos of him and his queen across the front pages.

Tableau: A scene enacted by masked krewe members at a Carnival ball. Staged before the dancing, it depicts the parade and/or ball's theme. Think of it as a short, one-act mime.

Throws: Sought-after trinkets hurled by masked krewe members on passing floats. The usual suspects include beads (from plain round beads in Mardi Gras colors to LED crawfish), doubloons and plastic cups. Depending on the parade, the generosity of the masker and the appeal of the crowd member, an energetic parade watcher could catch a stuffed animal, a Zulu coconut, a Muses shoe and dozens of other interesting little and large tchotchkes.

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