Mardi Gras began long before the Europeans came to the New World. Every mid-February, the Romans celebrated Lupercalia , in honor of Lupercus. This was a festival very similar to Mardi Gras.
When Christianity came into the Roman Empire, Carnival was accepted as a period of merriment and fun before the Catholic tradition of Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is always the Wednesday after Mardi Gras. Lent lasts for 40 days, beginning on Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. These 40 days are a time for prayer and fasting. At this time, the Catholics are not to eat meat.
Carnival comes from the Latin word “ carne ,” which means farewell to meat or the shedding of flesh. Catholics partied and feasted during the carnival season, before it was time to fast. The Catholic influence is still seen with the large boeuf gras that is present every year in the Krewe of Rex. The boeuf gras is an ancient symbol for the fattened cow eaten on “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras) before Lent. The ancient symbol traces all the way back to France in 1512.
Mardi Gras came to America in 1699, with the French explorer, Iberville. Mardi Gras was celebrated in Paris, France since the Middle Ages.
Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on March 3, 1699. Iberville set up camp on the Mississippi River. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in Paris. In honor of this day, Iberville named the sight Point du Mardi Gras .
Iberville’s French influence is still seen at the present Mardi Gras.
Many of our Mardi Gras terms are French.
Some example are the “Lundi Gras,” “Mardi Gras,” “Boeuf Gras,” “Nouvelle Orleans,” or “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler.”
Carnival organizations are called krewes . The word krewe means, “a group of people.” That;s just what the krewes of Mardi Gras are, a group of men and/or women with a common like or interest. Many times, it is just to have a great time at Mardi Gras!
The first and oldest krewe was Comus, which began in 1857.
The second oldest and most important krewe is Rex, which began in 1872. The Krewe of Rex was formed partially because of a visit from the Russian Duke Alexis Romanoff. Rex was America's royalty for a day. Rex became the international symbol for Mardi Gras. Rex was the first daytime parade. The Krewe also adopted the Romanoff's house colors - purple (signifying justice), green (faith), and gold (power) as the official Mardi Gras colors. The krewe always parades on Mardi Gras day, and Rex is the King of the Mardi Gras season.
The Krewe of Rex parades for Mardi Gras. The picture was taken some time in the middle to late 1890s.
The Krewe of
In 1916, the first African American Krewe of Zulu was formed.
The blacks were mocking the snobbishness of the Rex parade. The King of Zulu used a tin can for his crown and a banana stalk for his scepter.
The krewe always has one white eye and they are known for their unique, hand decorated coconut throws.
In 1949, Louis Armstrong was King of the Zulu parade and was pictured on the cover of Time magazine.
Today, Zulu, with its beautiful modern floats, is one of the more popular parades of the season.
The Mardi Gras Indians emerged in the late 1800s, playing Afro-Caribbean rhythms and wearing costumes made of beads. Their costumes were modeled after North American ceremonial dress.
The men dance through the streets in costumes inspired by the traditional clothing of Indians.
Traditionally, their music is played with congas, tambourines, and belled wrist and ankle bands .
They named their "Krewes" for imaginary Indian tribes, like Wild Tchoupitoulas, and Yellow Pocahontas. The Creole Wild West is the oldest tribe.
Mardi Gras Indian traditions have evolved into a friendly competition of elaborate costuming. Carnival has become an opportunity for the Indians to compare each other's art and craftsmanship. When two different parading Indian tribes meet, the greeting often starts with a song, chant, or ceremonial dance.
The Indians do not ride floats, nor do they have established routes. They parade through their neighborhoods, marching the back streets of New Orleans on foot.