Long before the birth of Jesus and Christianity, young men in disguise would roam the streets of Rome carousing 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 week-long midwinter party.
A couple of centuries later, the early Christian Church cleverly consolidated and converted these pagan feasts to a Christian holiday so that they could celebrate without persecution from Rome, declaring December 25 the birthday of Jesus and calling it “Christ Mass” or Christmas.
The Epiphany, commemorating 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 called “The Lord of Misrule.”
During the revelry, small tokens were distributed, suggesting the gifts brought by the three kings. Thus the origin of current day ‘throws’ which are dispensed to parade goers from the scores of floats which comprise the twenty-first century Mardi Gras .
Masked balls would become the pinnacle of Twelfth Night first in Renaissance Italy and then to France and England. Early New Orleans Creoles would later call them "les bals des rois," for the kings who presided over the masked merrymaking.
A mock king for the ball was chosen by chance: whoever found a coin or a bean in a piece of special “king cake” (named for the Three Kings) was crowned monarch of Twelfth Night. His Majesty could then choose his Queen or allow her to be selected by luck of the draw. The young lady who found a pea in her piece of cake would become the chosen consort for the evening. The cake, bean and pea are ancient symbols of fertility.
Later the masked balls and entertainment continued through Shrove Tuesday, a day the French called Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday and celebrated the day before Lent.
Ironically, the solemn, austere period of Lent actually created Carnival, which means, literally, “farewell to meat.” All carnival revelries began with the frenzied indulgence of people about to bid a temporary - but very fond - adieu to the pleasure of the flesh.
Just as Christmas was moved to December coincide with Roman pagan celebrations, the date for Easter (which determines Lent and therefore Mardi Gras) was determined by the Spring Equinox, a major pagan festival of ancient Rome.
Mardi Gras falls between February 3 and March 9, always 46 days before Easter Sunday – the total of the 40 days of Lent plus the six Sundays in that period. Faithful Christians abstain from meat products on the Fridays of Lent and will routinely ‘give up’ a favored food or beverage in Lent.
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 Orleans, he named the site Pointe du Mardi Gras. It was apropos since the date was March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras Day back home.
The Europeans brought their Carnival customs, and Creole society was soon masking and dancing at private balls while revelers in disguise roamed the old streets.
The year 1837 marked the first known procession of masked revelers in the city. By the mid 1840s, the carousing and drunken escapades had grown so wild, relatively sober citizens lobbied to ban all public carnival celebrations.
Six men from Mobile, where Mardi Gras celebrations had been held as early as 1708, 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 Dionysius, he was represented as a drunken youth bearing a torch. In Milton’s poetic masque, Comus is a rascal, the son of wine God Baachus and Circe, daughter of the Sun.
With a little whimsy and archaic spelling, the Mobile Six formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus, and in 1857 they paraded by torchlight on Mardi Gras evening on two mule-drawn floats.
While the birthplace of modern Mardi Gras is disputed in both Mobile and in New Orleans, Mobile's Twelfth Night Celebrations were held on New Year's Eve until 1866. The parade of the Mystick Krewe of Comus in 1857 was thus the first true Mardi Gras parade.
The next year krewe members decided to expand. 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 are still venerated with a grand statue at the circle intersecting St. Charles and Howard Avenues).
The parade and ball, with themes from mythology and literature, were so successful that party-minded New Orleanians decided more was better. The Krewes of Twelfth Night Revelers, Proteus and Momus were quickly formed and their parades rolled through dusky evenings and dark nights lit only by torches.
By sheer chance, Alexis Romanov, Grand Duke of Russia, would visit New Orleans during the Mardi Gras of 1872, as he pursued his latest amour, actress Lydia Thompson.
To celebrate his visit, a group of 40 businessmen funded a daytime parade for Mardi Gras Day and called it “Rex,” Latin for ‘king.’ The formation of the crew was first told to the citizens on Lundi Gras (the day before Mardi Gras) through an announcement in the daily newspapers. Businesses were asked to shut down the next day to greet Rex and honor the Duke.
In the Duke’s honor, the men of Rex adopted the Romanov family colors of purple, green and gold (representing justice, fidelity and power). They commissioned a band to play the Duke’s favorite love song, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” from the play Bluebeard. The lovely Lydia Thompson had a starring role.
After Alexis left, the colors stuck (to this very day), the parade continued and a masked ball was added the next year in l873. The song became the anthem of the Mardi Gras and the theme of Rex. Each year he mounts his throne with a motto: Pro Bono Publico…“for the common good.”
Rex first arrived via riverboat at the foot of Canal Street. It’s a custom on Lundi Gras and continues to this date.
King cakes came to New Orleans with the French, who substituted a tiny baby Jesus doll in place of the medieval bean. The cakes began as round, custard filled pastries decorated with crowns and have since evolved into a braided cinammon bread resembling brioche and topped with icing (sometimes even including unique flavors as filling). King Cakes remain extremely popular throughout the City during the carnival season.
At the Twelfth Night Revelers Ball each year, either a bean or a plastic baby is baked with a large King Cake. The Court gathers around the cake and each young debutante is given a slice. The maid whose slice contains the bean is crowned Queen.
The tradition with king cake in New Orleans is that whoever finds the baby in their slice of cake must bring the king cake to the next party during the Carnival season.
This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories to New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130 504-566-5019. http://www.neworleanscvb.com/. Updated in January 2015.