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A Brief History of Mardi Gras - A'ROR'N Days 2022



Grand parades, fancy masked balls, strings of beads, sequins, streamers, king cakes, and everything decked out in purple, green and gold - these are a handful of images that may come to mind when thinking of the holiday of Mardi Gras. Yet while Mardi Gras gains a lot of attention in certain parts of the United States, much of its history may still feel obscure to many. So, as Mardi Gras is the theme for this year's A'ROR'N Days celebration, let's take this opportunity to hop aboard the history float, and parade down memory lane to get a glimpse into the history behind this very exuberant holiday.


Name and Beginnings


The name "Mardi Gras" (pronounced, "mar-dee gr-aw") means "Fat Tuesday" in French. On the Gregorian Christian calendar, Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, and was traditionally the day Christians would eat all of the fats and animal products in their homes before giving them up for the Lenten fast. Additionally, Mardi Gras is in fact part of a larger celebration season known as "Carnival." The Carnival celebration began in medieval Europe, and was a time for parades, feasting and revelry before the beginning of the somber Lenten season. The Carnival season could last anywhere from several days to several weeks, depending on the local culture. Whatever its length, the Carnival season is generally kept somewhere within the time-frame from Epiphany (January 6) through Fat Tuesday. Carnival is still celebrated in many Roman Catholic countries and communities to this day.


In short, the festive season of Carnival would culminate in the celebration of Mardi Gras, which was the final day to feast and be merry before observing the Lenten season.


Eventually, the observance of Mardi Gras made its way to France in the 17th and 18th centuries under the royal house of the Bourbons, and from there was exported to the French colonies, including those in North America.


Mardi Gras in the United States

The beginnings of Mardi Gras in the United States can be traced back to the late 15th century with the French colonies on the continent. One of the first references to Mardi Gras in the U.S. was on March 2, 1699, when the French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of land about sixty miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana. He named this location, "Pointe du Mardi Gras" ("Mardi Gras Point"), as he and his men had arrived there on the eve of the Mardi Gras holiday. Three years later, in 1702, Bienville established Fort Louis de la Louisiane, which eventually became present-day Mobile, Alabama. The next year, in 1703, the fort held its first official Mardi Gras celebration, thus arguably making Mobile's Mardi Gras celebration the longest-running one in the country.


Yet, while it may not have the longest-running Mardi Gras celebration, New Orleans has come to be the principal location for Mardi Gras festivities in the United States. The Carnival season in the area begins on Twelfth Night (the night of January 6) and, of course, runs through to the grand finale on Mardi Gras. By the 1830's, the iconic Mardi Gras street processions had become an established tradition in the city. In 1875, Governor Henry Warmoth signed the "Mardi Gras Act," making Mardi Gras a legal holiday for the state of Louisiana.


Mardi Gras Traditions

Like many holidays around the world, Mardi Gras has evolved over the years, with traditions being added and changed over time. Let us then take a look at some of the most iconic traditions of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and see how they came to be and what they mean.


Floats & Parades

For centuries, Mardi Gras has been a time for music, masked balls, picnics, and or course parades. In New Orleans,

there's been a long tradition of the Mardi Gras parades, with dozens of secret societies and clubs hosting and participating in them. These groups are known as "Krewes" (pronounced, "crews"). Some of the most famous parade Krewes are the Krewe of Rex (meaning King), the Krewe of Zulu, the Krewe of Endymion, the Krewe of Bacchus and the Krewe of Orpheus. Nowadays, the Mardi Gras floats (a.k.a. "tableaux" ("table") cars) can be very large, with state-of-the-art technologies being implemented into their decorations and design (ex. LED lights and animatronics). However, before the present-day fantastical floats, Mardi Gras floats were simply decorated horse-drawn carriages and wagons. Eventually, motorized vehicles also came onto the scene. Instead of electric lights, torchbearers (known as "flambeaux") would walk alongside the nighttime processions to light the way. It has also been a long-standing tradition to throw various goodies - such as strings of beads and candy - from the floats to the parade audience.


Masked Balls & Costumes


Like the parades, there has also been a long-standing tradition of masked balls and costumes for Mardi Gras. The styles for the traditional Mardi Gras masks originated from the Carnival masks worn in Venice, Italy. In Venice, the practice of wearing masks during Carnival allowed for people of both upper and lower-classes to co-mingle with one another, and to honestly speak their thoughts without fear of prejudice. In short, putting on physical masks allowed for the taking off of other metaphorical masks (for better or for worse). In New Orleans, many clubs and secret societies have also hosted their own masked balls, in addition to hosting parades.


The Colors

One of the most recognizable features of Mardi Gras is the combination of its three main colors - purple, green and gold. While these colors do look good together, there's more behind them than just simple aesthetics. For one thing, each of the colors has its own meaning. Purple symbolizes justice, green symbolizes faith, and gold symbolizes power. This color combination was first implemented by the Mardi Gras Rex (the Mardi Gras King) in 1872, who declared that all balconies in the city be draped in purple, green and gold.


However, while the symbolism of the colors has been unanimously agreed upon, the reasoning behind their choice has come into some debate, according to MardiGrasNewOrleans.com. One theory is that the Mardi Gras Rex selected these colors to honor the visit of Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff in 1872. However, there is also the theory that the colors were selected for the Mardi Gras Rex himself, as he wanted his own colors befitting a kingdom. Thus the tri-colored choice may have been inspired by other national banners consisting of three colors (such as the United Kingdom, the United States and France), and the idea in heraldry that a royal house's colors needed to have a combination of a metal with other colors. Thus purple was chosen as a royal color, gold for the precious metal of the same name, and green for being the best aesthetic pick from the remaining color options.


However they came to be, the colors of Mardi Gras are a striking combination to be sure, and have graced many a parade float, costume, pastry and decoration for generations.


The Food

No celebration is complete without the food! And as the celebration of Mardi Gras literally alludes to food in its name, it's no surprise that food is a big deal for this holiday. Many of the foods associated with Mardi Gras in the United States are of Cajun and Creole origins. Some of the most iconic foods to have during this celebration include gumbo, jambalaya, beignets (French for "donut" or "fritter"), and king cakes. King cakes are one of THE most popular treats to have during Mardi Gras, and have a very curious tradition of their own. Traditionally, king cakes were meant to be a reminder of Jesus being revealed as the High King to the Three Kings when they came to visit him on Epiphany - the holiday marking the beginning of the Carnival season. This reminder is literally baked into the cake, as a tiny figurine of a baby is hidden in the dough of the cake, with a prize being given to the lucky person who finds the figurine within their piece of cake. It is believed that the tradition of king cakes was brought over to North America from France in the the 1870's.



We hope this brief overview of the history of Mardi Gras has helped you to understand this holiday a bit more, has inspired some float and costume ideas for this year's parade, and has helped you get further geared up for the theme of this year's A'ROR'N Days celebration! Happy A'ROR'N Days and Happy Mardi Gras everyone!


LAISSEZ LES BON TEMPS ROULER!

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!



Sources:

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Mardi Gras." Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified February 10, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mardi-Gras-carnival.


Hotel Monteleone. "7 New Orleans Mardi Gras Traditions and Their History." Last modified January 4, 2022. https://hotelmonteleone.com/blog/new-orleans-mardi-gras-traditions/.


Longmuir, Thornie. Daily Art Magazine. "History of Venetian Carnival Masks." Last modified January 10, 2022. https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/history-of-venetian-carnival-masks/.


Mardi Gras New Orleans. "Fresh King Cakes Directly From New Orleans." Last accessed May 24, 2022. https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/king-cakes.


Mardi Gras New Orleans. "Mardi Gras Colors." Last accessed May 24, 2022. https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/traditions/colors.


Mardi Gras New Orleans. "Mardi Gras History." Last accessed May 24, 2022. https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/.


New Orleans. "Mardi Gras Krewes." Last accessed May 24, 2022. https://www.neworleans.com/events/holidays-seasonal/mardi-gras/krewes/.



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