Mardi Gras Traditions

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Blame it all on Iberville

…if you ever had a Mardi Gras hangover or your feet hurt from walking the parade route, or you don’t know what to do with those mounds of Mardi Gras beads you have collected, or you simply have a severe bucket-list itch to experience Mardi Gras. Blame it on Iberville-that’s Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville.

Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville

No, Iberville did not invent Mardi Gras, but the French-Canadian explorer was commissioned by France to explore the mouth of the Mississippi River and establish a colony in the vast Louisiana Territory. On March 3, 1699 Iberville and his crew which included his younger brother Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, landed their longboats on the east bank just north of the mouth of the Mississippi River in what is now Plaquemines Parish and across the river from where Fort Jackson would be established. That date may not sound significant, but it was Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and back in France, Mardi Gras, the celebratory run-up to the austerity and sacrifice of Lent was in full swing. In honor of the day, Iberville named the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras and the adjacent canal Bayou du Mardi Gras. These became the oldest place names of non-Native American origin in the whole Mississippi River valley and Mardi Gras was forever attached to Louisiana, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville
Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville

Some 19 years later, in 1718, Bienville would establish the city of New Orleans upriver from the Pointe du Mardi Gras encampment. The Brothers Le Moyne’s impact and influence in the region were significant and lasted until 1743. They were appointed the first two governors of Louisiana during the French period (1699-1766), with Bienville serving as colonial governor on and off until 1743. For their contributions to the establishment of Louisiana and New Orleans, they were honored by being the namesake of two French Quarter streets, the first and second streets running parallel to Canal Street.

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Mardi Gras Comes to New Orleans

Mardi Gras was celebrated publicly in New Orleans by the 1730s. In the 1740’s another French governor, Pierre Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls which became the model of the modern-day Mardi Gras Balls which are a common fixture during the Carnival Season in New Orleans. Street processions of masked revelers led by gas torches, called flambeaux, (the plural of flambeau) began to appear. In 1856 the Mistic Krewe of Comus was formed. Comus introduced painted floats and masked balls, invoking a sense of mystery and romance to the festivities as all members remained anonymous. The Mistic Krewe of Comus set the standard of mockery and satire aimed at societal and political norms that lasts until today. Their coining of the term Krewe meaning a carnival organization is such a mocking affectation. Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was established in 1870 and introduced the first Mardi Gras “throws”. In 1872, Rex, the King of Carnival was invented and reigns annually over Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras float and crowd on Canal Street
Parades on Canal Street-Used with the permission of the Louisiana Office of Tourism

Rex selected the Mardi Gras colors in 1892 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff and assigned meaning to them-Purple stands for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. In 1875, the governor signed the Mardi Gras Act, establishing Mardi Gras Day as an official Louisiana State holiday, and that was that.  

Carnival Season

What is the significance of today, January 6th? In the Christian calendar, it is known as Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany and King’s Day. It marks the end on the Christmas Season, after twelve long days, it’s the day you can stop singing about all those lovely gifts your true love gave to you. The Feast of the Epiphany is the day that the Christ Child was revealed to the Magi, translated as Kings or Wise Men.  In New Orleans, all those things are important and observed, but it is also the beginning of Carnival Season, the time of year when Mardi Gras is celebrated, the last celebration prior to the sacrifice and fasting of Lent. Many people believe that Mardi Gras is one day, and it is in a way, Mardi = Tuesday and Gras = Fat, so it’s Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. But it’s not just one day, it’s a season which begins on Twelfth Night with the annual parades of The Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc in the French Quarter and Phunny Phorty Phellows who traditionally ride the St Charles Street Street Car Uptown, then culminates at Midnight on Fat Tuesday when Lent begins. It is a season drenched in history and tradition and includes the entirety of the community from rich to poor. There are many organized Krewes which present elaborate parades in the city and surrounding communities and many other Krewes which do not parade but still have elaborate masked balls. There are the giant Krewes like Rex, the King of Carnival,  Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club led by The Big Shot, the Krewe of Baccus, Greek God of Wine with their celebrity King and Endymion, with their super-floats, celebrity Grand Marshals and much-celebrated Extravaganza.

Crowd watching Endymion Parade
An Endymion Super Float

There are also smaller walking and marching clubs like Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club and the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies and everything in between. These groups parade starting on Twelfth Night all the way through Mardi Gras night. There are also the Mardi Gras Indians comprised, in large part, of the African-American communities of New Orleans’s inner city who wear beautifully exotic costumes and head-dresses. Their parade dates, times and routes are not published in advance but do tend to follow their usual pattern every year. The Mardi Gras Indians, led by the Big Chief, name themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. As I said, this is a season drenched in history and tradition.

Crowds on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day
A look down Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day

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King Cake

Another such tradition is the King Cake-this tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870.  

King Cake on a white platter
King Cake

Although the cake’s origins date back centuries in Europe, New Orleans’ version has its own characteristics. A King Cake is an oval-shaped pastry as rich in history as it is in flavor, decorated in the royal Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold, chosen to resemble a jeweled crown honoring the Wise Men who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany. Baked into the cake is a prize-usually a toy figurine, commonly thought to represent the Christ Child. Historically such things as coins, beans, pecans, or peas were hidden in each King Cake. When I was growing up it was always a tiny porcelain doll but today it’s a tiny plastic doll. Tradition calls for a weekly King Cake Party where the King Cake is sliced and served. The party-goer that gets the piece with the baby is the King and must throw the next party and provide the King Cake.

Baby in a sliced King Cake
Here’s the baby…you’re the King!

Here are a few other Carnival and Mardi Gras Tidbits

  • When is Mardi Gras? Twelfth Night is always twelve days after Christmas, January 6th. Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday, forty-six days before Easter Sunday which is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. Therefore the date for Mardi Gras will be between February 3rd to March 9th. Here are some future dates for Mardi Gras: 2019-March 5th; 2020-February 25th; 2021-February 16th; 2022-March 1st; 2023-February 21st.
  • Mardi Gras “throws”.These are the trinkets and collectibles that are thrown from the floats by the Krewes to people lining the parade routes yelling “Throw Me Something, Mister”!  Throws can be simple plastic beads, elaborate glass beads, toys, cups, spears and just about anything imaginable. Rex introduced medallions or doubloons in 1884. In 1910, Zulu began throwing coconuts or “Golden Nugget”, a highly sought after throw. Plagued by lawsuits from parade goers who were konked in the head with a coconut, the organization was unable to get insurance coverage in 1987 and ceased this tradition. After much lobbying, the Louisiana Legislature passed SB188, the “Coconut Bill,” which excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries arising from the coconuts that were handed from the floats. In 1988, then-governor Edwin Edwards signed the bill into law. Today the elaborately decorated Zulu coconut is a much-coveted collector item.

    Mardi Gras Throws
    Mardi Gras “Throws”
  • Rex is the King of Carnival. The Mayor of New Orleans reads a proclamation to that effect every year on Mardi Gras Day and presents Rex with a Key to The City.
  • Be careful when you’re at a parade. Even if you’re standing next to little old ladies, they will stomp your hands if you reach down to grab beads or a doubloon off the ground. Its every man for himself no matter how much bounty they have collected so far. Just be polite and when the float passes yell “Throw me something, Mister!!”

    Waving at the floats on Mardi Gras Day
    Throw Me Something Mister
  • Parades follow assigned routes and schedule every year. There’s the Uptown Route, the Mid-City Route, the Metairie Route and the Westbank Route. These rarely change except for a tweak now and then, or maybe a cancellation or rescheduling for rain. That’s why a house near the parade route is coveted, better yet, make friends with someone that lives near the parade route (you may need their bathroom!). There are also parades in most of the small towns around New Orleans and in South Louisiana.
  • The Krewes are more than just a club to pass a good time. Most of them do serious civic work that helps schools, fight crime, flood and hurricane relief and many more worthwhile community projects.
  • Masking is recommended on Mardi Gras Day. Historically, masking was the great equalizer-everyone is rich and everyone is poor when everyone is masked. Masking adds to the mystique and frivolity of the celebration. This tradition goes back to medieval days, but in New Orleans, the legislature had to provide a special exemption from the Louisiana law that generally bans concealing or disguising one’s face in public.

    Masker as Knight on a thrown on Mardi Gras Day
    This is NOT the King of Mardi Gras
  • Heavy commercialization has hit everything these days and King Cakes are not excluded. Growing up, and really up until a short time ago, King Cakes were only available during Carnival Season…you know, Twelfth Night until Fat Tuesday. These days it is unfortunately not unusual to see King Cakes at other times of the year. Don’t eat King Cake outside of Carnival Season!!!! Do you want it to rain on Mardi Gras Day??? Really people, is nothing sacred?

If you want a King Cake and live out of the New Orleans area, you can order online from Randazzos, or Gambinos Bakeries. I have no affiliation with these fine people but only desire you to try a good King Cake.

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This article only scratches the surface of what and why Mardi Gras is. Here are a few more resources and a list of the parade scheduled for this year. Check these, as well as the links I have provided in this article, out to learn more about the history and customs of Carnival in New Orleans: The History Behind 5 of New Orleans’ Favorite Mardi Gras Traditions, Three Men and a Baby: A Brief History of King Cakes

But remember, if you get addicted to Mardi Gras, don’t blame me…blame it on Iberville.

Yeah You Right!

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