The History of Mardi Gras

New Orleans is a city known for its endless stream of parades, festivals and second lines. (In fact, the City Council mandated in 2015 that the festival calendar had already reached its max and no more could be organized!).  Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest and Southern Decadence are only a select few of the countless festivals which take place in the Crescent City each year.

And yet, no festival or parade can trump Mardi Gras—because Mardi Gras? Well, Mardi Gras just isn’t one parade, it’s a compilation of 70-75 different parades that take place over a matter of weeks.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to New Orleans to stake out their spots on the route as early as humanly possible, and by Fat Tuesday (the day before Lent and the last day of Carnival Season) it’s not uncommon to see people holed up in tents as they camp out over night.

How exactly did Mardi Gras become the extravagant celebration today? In honor of the upcoming Mardi Gras season, we’ve decided to review the history of Carnival before the Super Weekend arrives. So sit down, grab a cup of cafe au lait or a slice of King Cake, and let me tell you the story of Mardi Gras . . .

The History of Mardi Gras

Pagan Times into the Era of Christianity

The origins of Mardi Gras actually have nothing to do with Lent and everything to do with the winter solstice. In ancient Rome, young men intent on being merry donned disguises as they partook in grand festivities all throughout night. The revelry was held in celebration of Saturnalia, or the winter solstice. By the 3rd century A.D., the Roman Emperor Aurelius decided to make December 25th, which was the official date for Saturnalia under the new Julian calendar, the birthday of the Invincible Sun.

For a time, this worked reasonably well. But as Christianity began to spread across Europe over the next few centuries, such pagan holidays were deemed incredibly dangerous. Traveling monks and ruling government councils alike were determined to convert the so-called “barbarians” from their heathen ways. A celebration like Saturnalia on December 25th no doubt posed a bit of a problem.

Not to worry, the Church declared the day of the Invincible Son to be the birthday of the Son of God and Man, “Christ Mass” (Christmas). (Really, what better way to convince the pagans to convert than to show them that their traditions had been incorporated into the new Christian faith?) The Epiphany was then celebrated on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas, when the three wise kings visited Jesus.

By the Middle Ages, the Twelve Days of Christmas had become an all-out party. The Lords of Misrule—the kings of the revels—passed out tokens to the festival-goers and encouraged an atmosphere of good fun and good cheer. (And perhaps a bit of debauchery, as well).

It was during the Renaissance in Italy that Twelfth Night truly reached its apex, especially when masked balls became all the rage of high society. The Lords of Misrule still held court, and Twelfth Night truly was the biggest party of the year. Over the next few centuries, the celebration of Mardi Gras—the season before Lent—traversed west and mingled with the culture of the French House of the Bourbons.

Mardi Gras in the Louisiana Colony

Carnival Season arrived early in the New World. So early, actually, that when Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur Bienville, sailed down the Mississippi River to found the French Colony in 1699, he arrived on the gulf on March 2, 1699 . . . which just so happened to be the eve of Mardi Gras.

What better way to honor the holiday than to bestow its name on the plot of land he’d stumbled across? Indeed, New Orleans’ founding father named that strip of land Pointe du Mardi Gras. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not quite, actually, as it would be a few more years until the first celebration of Mardi Gras was held in the new colony. After establishing Fort Louis de la Louisiane (Mobile) in 1702, Bienville and his men held their own small Mardi Gras celebration just a year later. The first Krewe (or secret society) was formed the following year, known as the Masque de la Mobile; and by 1710 the Boeuf Gras Society had formed and continued to parade each year until 1861. Their mascot was the fatted calf, which would ultimately become the Krewe of Rex’s symbol at the end of the nineteenth century.

During its years in Mobile, the Boeuf Gras Society’s some sixteenth members would push a massive bull’s head down the street on wheels. (Although not the floats as we think of them today, there’s something to be said of a massive calf’s head being rolled down the street to hollering and excitement).

Carnival Arrives in the Crescent City

It wasn’t until 1718 that Bienville established the port city of La Nouvelle Orleans, and Mardi Gras celebrations followed not too long after. The 1730s saw the initial revelries, though they lacked parades, and in the 1740s, the governor of Louisiana formulated the first Mardi Gras balls. The Marques de Vaudreuil was known to all as a man who liked extravagance and even a touch of scandal, so it seems quite appropriate that he would be the first to create the balls that are still held today.

Despite these early happenings, it was not until 1781 that Mardi Gras was officially mentioned in any sort of documentation. The Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Association was the first organization, like the Masque de la Mobile, to begin forming various groups and societies interested in performing in Mardi Gras parades.

During the course of the next fifty or so years, early New Orleanians grew more and more interested in growing the Carnival Season. Revelers rode on horse and buggy, calling to the citizens and eliciting excitement from both young and old; in the cover of darkness, people carried flambeaux (torchlights) to illuminate the path for the krewe members. And matters apparently grew so drunkenly debauched that sober citizens called to the Council to put an end to the madness.

The “madness” only continued as the krewes more in number and the party that more beloved by locals and visitors.

The Krewe of Comus was the first official New Orleanian krewe, though funnily enough, it was six Mobile men who started it along with a few select New Orleans locals. They were to be masked at all times to disguise their identities—just like the Romans had done while celebrating Saturnalia—and rode on tableaux cars, or floats.

It wasn’t until the second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, established themselves in 1870 that krewes in New Orleans brought back the medieval custom of throwing tokens into the crowd as the Lords of Misrule had done nearly four hundred years earlier.

A postcard dating to 1911, showing a New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade
A postcard dating to 1911, showing a New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade

But it is the Krewe of Rex that helped to solidify New Orleans as a Mardi Gras center. In 1872, it just so happened that the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff had plans to visit New Orleans during Carnival Season. (Apparently he’d fallen for actress Lydia Thompson and sought to make their relationship slightly more permanent). To celebrate the Grand Duke’s arrival, New Orleanians did what they did best: they set up his very own parade. Unlike Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, the Krewe of Rex was a daytime parade and named for the Latin word for “king.” They used the colors of the Grand Duke’s family—purple, yellow and green—as their own, and arrived on a river boat at Canal Street.

Today, the Krewe of Rex is one of the largest and longest parades of the entirety of Carnival Season and the Grand Duke’s colors are now the official colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

In the century-and-a-half that has passed since then, multiple of parades were added to the Carnival Season. In 2015 alone there were some 21,000 float riders and 822 floats. (This number doesn’t include the amount of dance teams, organizations and bands that are incorporated into each parade as well).

It’s safe to say that Mardi Gras in New Orleans really is one of the largest outdoor parties in the world!

Mardi Gras Customs in New Orleans

After over a century of holding large festivities each year, it’s no surprise that the Mardi Gras season now has a number of customs to go along with it! Here are just a few traditions that make the Carnival Season what it is today:

Throws

“Throw me something mister!”

This might be the most frequently heard phrase during Mardi Gras. Since the Twelfth Night Revelers reinstated the idea of throws in the nineteenth century, all of the krewes now take part in the custom as well.

What are the sort of objets you might catch while on the route? Beads (plastic and glass), flowers, stuffed animals and spears, medallions or even brightly painted shoes. Shoes, you ask? Yes, shoes. The all-female Krewe of Muses is notorious for throwing high heels—make sure to duck!—just as the Krewe of Nyx is partial to purses and the Krewe of Zulu has the tradition of throwing coconuts out into the crowd.

(Disclaimer: A Zulu coconut is a prize not easily won, so if you happen to see one flying your way, make sure to stick your arms in the air and grab it!)

Kids are known to sit on decked-out ladders along the parade-side street, making them easy targets for krewe members throwing beads or stuffed animals. Don’t be fooled, though, because catching throws is an all-ages activity during Carnival Season!

Mardi Gras Balls

The masked balls of Renaissance Italy made their way to New Orleans during the nineteenth century, thanks to the Marques de Vandreuil in the 1740s. Since then, many of the krewes hold invitation-only balls, while others allow the public to purchase tickets if they so choose.

These balls are generally quite lavish affairs, where black tuxes and ball gowns are an absolute must. But it is often during these balls that the Kings, Queens and the presiding court are announced to the rest of the krewe members. Though some of the court chooses to remain anonymous on their floats, you can always spot the reigning monarchs because their floats are always in the front of every parade. And for the Super-Krewes (Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus) the Kings and Queens are generally A-List celebrities!

King Cake

The original concept of the King Cake was brought to the French Creoles from their French ancestors. In the early days, the cake was a custard-filled pastry with a crown on top; inside there would be a bean or a coin. For the Twelfth Night Revelers, whoever got the slice with the golden bean was deemed Queen; the women who got silver beans became the Queen’s maids.

Today, King Cakes are a staple in New Orleans. They go on the market on the twelfth night after Christmas and can be purchased all the way up until Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent. Over the years, the beans have been replaced with a little baby Jesus, and whoever gets the little figurine in their slice of cake is responsible for purchasing the next King Cake.

(Fun Fact: in 2015, 500,000 king cakes were sold within New Orleans, and another 50,000 were shipped out of state!)

Mardi Gras in the Rest of the World

While we might be partial to celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Carnival Season is tremendously popular in other areas of the world. Each set of festivities has their own flare and uniqueness, and here are just a few places where the parties rival that of the Crescent City’s.

Trinidad & Congo:

This island offers the biggest Carnival in all of the Caribbean. Festivities begin at 4AM on the Monday before Ash Wednesday in the dark of the night. Festival goers gather together to honor J’Ouvert, which honors the island’s history and folklore. (Emphasis on the folklore!) The revelers cover themselves in mud, oil, chocolate and paint, as they dance through the early morning like monsters and demons. Following this, the party rages on for the rest of the day.

Venice, Italy

Carnival in Italy is a sight to behold, especially since it’s where the traces of Mardi Gras began all those centuries ago! Partiers don beautifully intricate masks, for both the masked balls and the gatherings out on the street. (And for those wondering, Venice is allegedly the hotspot for Carnival).

Rio de Janiero, Brazil

If there was ever a Carnival Season to rival that of New Orleans’, it would no doubt be Rio de Janeiro’s. More than 2 million locals and tourists are known to filter into the city for the celebration, and the streets are lit up in brilliantly vibrant colors. Carnival in Rio would be nothing without the sambadromes, or samba school students, who dance among the larger-than-life floats.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans During Non-Mardi Gras Months

Sometimes it can be difficult to plan vacations during the Mardi Gras Season in New Orleans, when plane tickets go sky-high and hotel rooms fill up at a rapidly alarming rate! Here are our top two suggestions that you must visit if you want a taste of Mardi Gras in New Orleans all year around.

Mardi Gras World

Located by the Port of New Orleans, Mardi Gras World is exactly what it sounds like: a huge convention center-sized building that houses many of the Mardi Gras floats. Tour guides will explain the history of Mardi Gras before showing guests the studio in which the floats are built from start to finish.

Although tours average about an hour in length, visiting Mardi Gras World will certainly be a highlight for families traveling with children or any other Carnival enthusiasts. Plus, the tour also includes a slice of King Cake, even during the months when King Cake is not in production.

For that alone, I would visit Mardi Gras World ten times over.

Mardi Gras Museum at Arnaud’s Restaurant

The Mardi Gras Museum
Photo Credit to Arnaud’s Restaurant

This French Quarter restaurant opened in 1918; since then, it has become one of the most respected and enjoyed fine dining locations in New Orleans. It’s also especially known for its French 75 Bar, which Enquire Magazine named “One of the Top Five Bars in the Country.”

A visit to Arnaud’s Restaurant should be on any person’s list upon visiting New Orleans, for the excellent French Creole food but also because tucked away upstairs is a little known museum honoring Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Officially titled the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, the museum is named after Germaine Cazenave Walls who was the daughter of Count Arnaud. As you might have already suspected, Count Arnaud was the founder of the restaurant, and his daughter was Arnaud’s successor.

During her lifetime, Germaine was crowned Queen of various Mardi Gras krewes for a total of 22 times between the years 1937-1968. Germaine was incredibly well-known during her life, and today the Mardi Gras Museum continues the legacy. Thirteen of her Queen’s costumes comprise the Museum’s exhibit, as well as one of her mother’s and sister’s and another four costumes worn by Count Arnaud when he reigned King. Six more costumes were worn once by children participating in the krewes.

The exhibit also included vintage photos, various jewelry worn during the Carnival Season and other artifacts.

For free of charge, visitors can take in the magnificence that is the Mardi Gras Museum throughout the week. Be sure to join in for Arnaud’s Sunday Jazz Brunch before heading upstairs! (Although that might just be our particular recommendation).

Have you ever been to Mardi Gras?  What part about it was your particular favorite? Comment below!