Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is celebrated around the world. With roots in Pagan traditions, the holiday was incorporated into the Christian faith as a last day of indulgence before the 40 days of fasting and penance known as Lent begins. Today, more than one million visitors attend the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, where the celebration is a legal holiday.
If you haven’t yet made your way down to Road Scholar’s 2018 Destination of the Year to celebrate this unique holiday, its customs and practices may be something of an enigma for you. Let us shed the light on some of these wacky New Orleans traditions and the history behind them.
Key ingredients for a King Cake: cinnamon, sprinkles and a plastic baby. But that wasn’t always the case. Mardi Gras’ principal culinary tradition, the King Cake, is named for the three wise men it commemorates. Inspired by the European Epiphany Cakes eaten on the 12th day of Christmas, the King Cake became a solely New Orleans tradition when a local baker started baking baby Jesus trinkets into the cakes in the 1940s. Find a baby in your slice of sweet bread, and you’ll be crowned the king or queen and be responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next party.
Masquerade balls were sweeping Europe when Mardi Gras came to the U.S. at the turn of the 18th century, and the first American Mardi Gras ball was hosted by French explorers in 1699. Bauta (full-faced mask), Columbina (half mask), Medico della Peste (beaked mask) carried over from Europe and can only be worn legally in the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras.
The first Mardi Gras parade on record took place in 1837, but they cemented their role in New Orleans Carnival tradition in 1857 when the secret society Mistick Krewe of Comus hosted a massive parade with marching bands, floats and many other key elements of a Mardi Gras parade that spectators expect to see today. The parade theme was “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost,” and it established New Orleans as the American epicenter for all things Mardi Gras.
But what is a “krewe,” you ask? The first was formed by a group of prominent Caucasian men in New Orleans who called themselves the Mistick Krewe of Comus (the Greek god of revelry). They kicked off their influential Mardi Gras celebration with the parade and ball mentioned above. In the following years, dozens of krewes have formed to host their own parades, including krewes made up of women and African Americans. In 1992, New Orleans City Council made it illegal for krewes to discriminate based on race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin, but some krewes refused to integrate and no longer participate.
Krewe of Rex (king, in Latin) is now one of the most famous krewes in New Orleans, perhaps due to one Russian Grand Duke. When the Krewe of Rex formed in 1872, they became involved in a public relations stunt revolving around the Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovitch of Russia, who was scheduled for a visit to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. They elected him King of the Carnival, and the crowd went wild. The tradition has continued every year since, and the king now receives a key to the city from the mayor of New Orleans.
Photo Courtesy of The House of Dance & Feathers
Neighborhood Mardi Gras Indian “tribes” spend many months and sometimes thousands of dollars adorning handmade costumes and headdresses each season for parade. Traditional tribal roles have been passed down from father to son, so Mardi Gras Indians have historically been overwhelmingly male. Some historians infer that, because marginalized Native American and African American communities were left out of the krewe equation, they merged cultural traditions to form Mardi Gras Indian tribes. When Jim Crow laws banned them from the main parades, the tradition became a more private community practice. Modern-day critics question whether the costumes may be culturally appropriation, as most Mardi Gras Indians are African American.
Gold, green and purple just happened to be the colors of the Russian Grand Duke’s royal house. In an act of brilliant branding, the colors were adopted for Mardi Gras in 1872, and the Krewe of Rex tossed green, gold and purple beads during the parade that year. Traits were assigned to each color: power for gold, justice for purple and faith for green.
Arguably the most popular Mardi Gras “throw,” colorful beads were the brain child of New Orleans krewes who began throwing them into crowds of parade spectators in the 19th century. Originally made of glass (and now of plastic), the beads were thought to bring good luck to those who caught them. The more debaucherous practice associated with throwing beads can be traced back to the 1970s, coincidentally during the sexual revolution.
One of the oldest African American krewes, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, hosted their first Mardi Gras parade in 1909. The next year, they became famous for tossing coconuts into the crowd (thought it’s not totally clear why they chose coconuts). But boring brown coconuts didn’t cut it, so in the years following, they began painting and decorating them to fit the festivities. Now the coconuts are handed to the crowd rather than thrown.
Since the first Mardi Gras in America began in the 18th century, blazing torches were required to continue the festivities long after sunset. The original “flambeaux” (French for “torches”) were carried by slaves and free men of color, and festival-goers compensated them by tossing coins their way. Today torch bearers are more like performance artists, twirling and throwing their torches in the hopes that they’ll be rewarded with coins (or dollar bills).
Now that you’re armed with the background you need to take part in these unique Mardi Gras traditions, find out what else you can learn with Road Scholar in New Orleans!
JoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President of Program Development, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states.