What is purple, gold, and green and parties in the street all day and all night?
Mardi Gras, of course! But how did this nonstop party come about? Who started this tradition and why exactly are the streets of New Orleans are bombarded with crowds of celebrators every year?
It all started with some drunk guys…
Well, not exactly- but one can assume. Back in ancient Rome before the Christian era, young men dressed in disguises and “made merry” (cough, cough) in the streets during the winter. This was to celebrate Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival to honour the deity Saturn.
In 3rd century AD, Roman emperor Aurelius decided that December 25, which was also winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, was the birthday of the Invincible Sun. Because apparently emperors were just allowed to decide when a God’s birthday was…seems fishy…
With Saturnalia on December 17 and the Sun festival on December 25, the wise people of Ancient Rome did what only logical party animals would do and made it a week-long celebration!
Wait a second- isn’t December 25 Christmas? I thought we were talking about Mardi Gras…
We are, and we promise it will all make sense eventually.
A couple centuries later the early Christian Church arrived and decided (as they always seem to do) that these pagan holidays and traditions were no good and needed to be replaced. Thus, they combined the two and declared December 25 as the birth Jesus and called it- you guessed it- Christ Mass. The Epiphany (the day the 3 wise men found the baby Jesus) happened on January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas, hence the 12 days of Christmas!
In Medieval Europe the 12 days became a series of celebrations that were presided over by a “Lord of Misrule” (known in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason and in France as the Prince des Sots) who was appointed by the people. He and his courts handed out goodies meant to represent the gifts brought by the 3 Kings. If you’re thinking “Gee- that sounds like Santa Claus!” You may be onto something.
What does this have to do with Mardi Gras? What most people don’t realize (at least, we didn’t!) is that Mardi Gras season actually starts on January 6 with the Feast of the Three Kings. Most of the celebration, of course, is concentrated in the last two weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday.
Along with this feast were les bals masques, which was the culmination of the celebrations held on the 12th night. The Creole people in early New Orleans called these Les Bals des Rois.
Eventually the parties and celebrations got extended all the way to Shrove Tuesday which the French called Mardi Gras, or fat tuesday. Those French people obviously had their priorities straight.
So how did we end up with Carnival?
Carnival literally translates to “farewell to meat”. This is because the celebration, which is the culmination of Mardi Gras season, occurs on the final day before Lent. During the 40 days of Lent followers of the Christian faith are required to give up all meat and dairy. Of course, the good people of New Orleans did the only logical thing anyone else would do- throw a massive party that revolved around the frenzied over-consumption of meat, cheese and eggs. This was for two reasons:
- To have one last taste of all that is good in this world before giving it up for 40 days
- To use up everything they had so that it wouldn’t spoil and go to waste.
So to be clear: Carnival, the culmination of the Mardi Gras season, always takes place on the final day before Lent. Lent is exactly 46 days before Easter (40 days of Lent + 6 Sundays that fall within that time period). Easter is always the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring Equinox. This means Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, will fall anywhere from February 3 to March 9.
Could they have made this more convoluted!?
But wait- how did Mardi Gras get from Europe to New Orleans? Did I miss something?
No, you did not miss anything. Allow us to explain…
French explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Seaur d’Iberville (imagine having to write that entire signature all the time!) set up camp about 60 miles south of what is now New Orleans. The day he arrived was March 3, 1699- Mardi Gras Day. For this reason he declared the spot “Le Point de Mardi Gras”, and as more Europeans made their way across the pond they brought with them their Carnival customs and traditions.
Carnival is Saved by 6 Drunk Guys
Ok, so we don’t actually know if they were drunk, but it’s Mardi Gras…one can assume, can’t they?
In the mid-1840s, Carnival was almost cancelled forever. Celebrations had become increasingly wild (read: drunken) and violent outbursts had become standard Mardis Gras procedure. This lead a few of the more sober citizens to lobby to have public carnival celebrations banned.
Enter the saviours of Mardi Gras: 6 young men from Mobile, where carnival parties had been tradition sas early as 1708. These guys would not stand to see their favourite holiday discontinued, so they decided to fight. For their right. To Parrrttaayy!
Sorry, we couldn’t resist!
These young men founded the first Mardi Gras Organization, calling themselves the Mistik Crew of Comus. Comus, to give you some context, is the God of mirth and revelry, follower of Dionysus (God of fermentation aka wine) and is depicted as a drunk young guy bearing a torch.
The Crew of Comus were serious party-rockers though, and a simple parade just wasn’t enough for them. Instead, they gave out 3 000 invitations to a ball which ended up becoming the event of the year for New Orleans citizens. As time went on, more groups of people founded their own “krewes”, and now there are more than 50 organizing parades and building floats. You can learn more about the different types of Krewes here.
But why Purple, Gold and Green? And what about those beads?
Up until 1872, all parades and celebrations were held at night. When Alexis Romanov, the Grand Duke of Russia, came to town in pursuit of the actress Lydia Thompson, he unbeknownst to himself arrived during Mardi Gras. To honour the Duke, a group of 40 businessmen created a Krewe named Rex, Latin for King, and decided to have a daytime parade in which Alexis Romanov was the honoured guest. They adopted the colours of the Romanov family for the occasion, and threw strands of beads in the Duke’s colours into the crowd.
The colours each have a meaning, with purple representing justice, green representing fidelity and gold representing power. The idea is that when you see someone in the crowd who exemplifies those traits, you throw them a strand of beads. Obviously, this has been replaced by the practice of women flashing their boobs for beads, which actually started as early as 1889 but didn’t really become a trend until the 70’s. We’re not sure if this is progress (#freetheboob) or not…
It’s not a party without cake…
That’s right! And carnival-goers understand this better than anyone. The traditional cake eaten during Mardi Gras season (and at NO OTHER time of year- that’s very important) is King Cake.
King cake is sort of like a cross between a French pastry and a cinnamon bun. These cakes are baked in a circular wreath-like shape and decorated with purple, green and gold icing or sprinkles. What makes these cakes special is the surprise hidden inside. After the cake is baked, a small gold bean or a tiny plastic baby (meant to represent the baby Jesus) is hidden somewhere in the cake. When it is served, whoever finds the bean or the baby inside their slice is deemed “King of the celebration”, and it is that person’s responsibility to make the King Cake for the next Mardi Gras party.
We tried our hand at making our own King Cake and think it turned out to be pretty darn tasty- be sure to have a look at our video by clicking here:
So now that you know all about the origins of Mardi Gras, get out there, eat some pancakes (or some meat- meat and pancakes?) throw on some purple green and gold and dance in the streets. We promise you’ll only get a few strange stares*.
*DISCLAIMER: we can’t promise anything.
Happy Mardi Gras!