Mardi Gras History

The colors of Mardi Gras
The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green and gold--but why?

The accepted story behind the original selection of these colors originates from 1872 when the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia visited New Orleans. It is said that the Grand Duke came to the city in pursuit of an actress named Lydia Thompson. During his stay, he was given the honor of selecting the official Mardi Gras colors by the Krewe of Rex, thus did these colors also become the colors of the House of Romanoff.

The 1892 Rex Parade theme "Symbolism of Colors" first gave meaning to the representation of the official Mardi Gras colors. Purple (symbolic of justice), Green (symbolic of faith) and Gold (symbolic of power).

Interestingly, the colors of Mardi Gras influenced the choice of school colors for the Lousiana arch-rival colleges, Louisiana State University and Tulane University. Whe LSU was deciding on its colors, the stores in New Orleans had stocked-up on fabrics of purple, green and gold for the upcoming Mardi Gras Season. LSU, opting for purple and gold, bought a large quantity of the available cloth. Tulane purchased much of the only remaining color...green (Tulane's colors are green and white).

Information collected from: http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/mgcolors.html

Ancient Romans Some time in the Second Century, during mid-February (usually February 15 according to the Julian calendar), Ancient Romans would observe what they called the Lupercalia, a circus-type festival which was, in many respects, quite similar to the present day Mardi Gras. This festival honored the Roman deity, Lupercus, a pastoral God associated with Faunus or the Satyr. Although Lupercus is derived from the Latin Lupus (meaning "wolf"), the original meaning of the word as it applies to Roman religion has become obscured over the passage of time.

After Christianity When Rome embraced Christianity, the early Church fathers decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of pagan rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. This granted a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom and the Carnival became a time of abandon and merriment which preceded the Lenten period (a symbolic Christian penatance of 40 days commencing on Ash Wednesday and ending at Easter). During this time, there would be feasting which lasted several days and participants would indulge in voluntary madness by donning masks, clothing themselves in the likeness of spectres and generally giving themselves up to Bacchus and Venus.

From Rome, the celebration spread to other European countries. In medieval times, a similar-type festivity to that of the present day Mardi Gras was given by monarchs and lords prior to Lent in order to ceremoniously conscript new knights into service and hold feasts in their honor. The landed gentry would also ride through the countryside rewarding peasants with cakes (thought by some to be the origin of the King Cake), coins (perhaps the origin of present day gifts of Mardi Gras doubloons) and other trinkets.

In America Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with the French explorer, Iberville. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, from where he launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. On March 3 of 1699, Iberville had set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France. In honor of this important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras.

According to some sources, however, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans began in 1827 when a group of students who had recently returned from school in Paris donned strange costumes and danced their way through the streets. The students had first experienced this revelry while taking part in celebrations they had witnessed in Paris. Although the exact date of the first revelries cannot be determined, the Carnival was well-established by the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

The Late Eighteenth Century
During the late 1700s, pre-Lenten masked balls and festivals were common in New Orleans while it was under French rule. However when New Orleans came under Spanish rule the custom was banned.

The Nineteenth Century
In 1803 New Orleans came under the U.S. flag. The prohibition against masked festivals continued until 1823 when the Creole populace convinced the governor to permit masked balls. In 1827 street masking was again legalized.

In 1833, Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a wealthy plantation owner, solicited a large amount of money in order to help finance an organized Mardi Gras celebration. It was not until 1837, however, that the first Mardi Gras Parade was staged. Two years later, a description of the 1839 Parade noted that it consisted of a single float. Since that time, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been an overwhelming success, continuing to grow with additional organizations participating each year.

During the early 1800's public celebrations of Mardi Gras centered around maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. The first documented parade occurred in 1837. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras gained a negative reputation because of violent behavior attributed to maskers during the 1840's and 50's. The situation became so bad that the press began calling for an end to the celebration.

In 1857 six New Orleanians saved Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization. The Comus organization added beauty to Mardi Gras and demonstrated that it could be a safe and festive event. Comus was the first organization to use the term krewe to describe itself. Comus also started the customs of having a secret Carnival society, having a parade with a unifying theme with floats, and of having a ball after the parade.

In 1809 Zulu appeared as a parody of Rex. The Zulu King held a banana stalk scepter and wore a lard can crown. He arrived on on oyster lugger instead of a steamboat. Zulu was destined to become one of the most popular and beloved of all krewes. In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers made their appearance. In 1871 they began the custom of presenting a young woman with a golden bean hidden in a cake. This young woman was the first queen of Mardi Gras. This was also the origin of the king cake tradition.

Rex was the first krewe to hold an organized daytime parade. One of the high points of Rex is the arrival of the Rex King on a riverboat.

Mardi Gras in the Twentieth Century
Mardi Gras was canceled during the dark years of 1918 and 1919 when the United States was involved in the bloody fighting of the First World War. The celebration struggled through the 1920's and early 30's, which saw Prohibition and The Great Depression.

Mardi Gras prospered during the 1940's, although it was canceled during the war years. In 1949 Louis Armstrong was King of the Zulu parade and was pictured on the cover of time magazine.

In 1950 the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras. They honored the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition by bowing to kings of Rex and Comus at the Comus ball. The 50's also saw the replacement of mule drawn floats with ones drawn by tractors and the formation of several new krewes including Zeus. Zeus was the first krewe to parade in Metairie.

The 60's ended with the debut of Bacchus. Bacchus aimed to bring national attention to Mardi Gras with gigantic floats and a Hollywood celebrity (Danny Kaye) riding as its king. Bacchus replaced the traditional ball with a supper to which tickets could be purchased by visitors and locals.

In the 70's, krewes followed the lead of Bacchus by placing celebrities in their parades. In 1974 Argus became the first Metairie parade on Fat Tuesday. This year also saw Endymion's rise to super krewe status.

The 1980s were were good times for Mardi Gras. In 1987 Rex brought back the custom of Lundi Gras, the arrival of the Rex King on the Mississippi River which had been celebrated from 1874 through 1917. Once considered essential, only ten krewes continued the tradition of masked balls by the end of the decade.