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Belated Mardi Gras


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A Brief History of Mardi Gras and Carnival

Every year, New Orleans shuts down and throws the party of parties. Anywhere else in the country, it's just another Tuesday, but in New Orleans it's Mardi Gras.

Many are unaware that Mardi Gras is a single day. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday," a reference to the tradition of slaughtering a fatted calf on the Tuesday before the beginning of the 40-day Lenten fast. There is a distinction, however, between Mardi Gras and Carnival. Mardi Gras is a single day that is the climax for the Carnival season. The Carnival season begins on January 6th or Twelfth Night (Kings Night) and runs until the beginning of Lent -- the Easter season (Ash Wednesday). Depending on when Easter falls in a given year, Carnival can run as long as two months.

Mardi Gras day or Fat Tuesday is the traditional day for masking. People can be found masking beginning around the Friday before Mardi Gras day. Mardi Gras costumes are elaborate; expect to see a lot of feathers and sequins. Friends and family often mask as a group. A flock of birds or a full place-setting would surprise no one. Anything goes on Mardi Gras day. Although the obscenity laws are still on the books, it's amazing what people get away with wearing ... or not wearing.

In the French Quarter, costumes tend to be more than revealing and there are some Carnival traditions (e.g. chantng "Show me your [insert body part here]") that would land a person in jail on any other day of the year. Police tend to just keep quiet and look (or look the other way) at most of the stuff that goes on Mardi Gras day.

Although parades roll for weeks before Fat Tuesday, on the Day of Days - parades begin early in the morning with the ever popular Zulu and don't stop until the last float passes late in the night. The highlight of the parades is the toast between the King of Carnival - Rex - and the mayor of New Orleans. This is the official proclamation and beginning of Mardi Gras. During the toast, Rex gives all city workers the day off and commands everyone to have a good time.

The Carnival season is the highlight of the New Orleans social calendar. The season officially begins on Twelfth Night or "Kings Night." Many New Orleanians with artificial Christmas trees will leave them up and replace the Christmas decor with purple, gold and green ornaments. These are the official colors of Carnival. Legend has it that these colors represent - green for faith, gold for power and purple for justice. However, most people believe these colors were chosen, simply, because they look good together.

Another Carnival tradition that begins on Twelfth Night is the King Cake. A King Cake is a round cake decorated with sweet purple, gold and green frosting. In every King Cake there is a little plastic baby representing the baby Jesus. The person who is lucky enough to bite into the piece of King Cake with the plastic baby gets to buy the next King Cake for the next King Cake party.

During the Carnival season, Mardi Gras Krewes, local clubs that sponsor parades and Carnival events, hold elaborate Balls and parties where their King, Queen and other Royalty are announced for the year. On its surface, the election of Royalty may seem comical. However, being chosen is a very special honor and is taken very seriously by New Orleanians. Mardi Gras Royalty are elected because of their contributions and standing in the community. Being chosen to represent a Krewe as a King or Queen is an honor that announces to the community at large that these people have made our city a better place and we recognize their hard work and dedication.

If you don't live in New Orleans, it is impossible to understand all the planning, hard work and expense that go into Carnival. Most Krewes begin planning for Carnival a year or more in advance. People belonging to a Krewe pay dues and spend their own money to stage their parades and to buy throws. This is not an inexpensive venture. The average Mardi Gras Krewe spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of donated time to parade for just a few hours. Why do it? New Orleanians love their city and you just have to ride in a Mardi Gras parade to understand the thrill of throwing stuff to a hungry crowd.

Although every King and Queen deserve respect, the true King of Carnival is Rex. The identity of Rex is a secret until the day before Mardi Gras. People anxiously await the announcement of the King of Carnival. Being chosen as the King of Rex is the highest honor New Orleans can bestow. The King of Rex is chosen because of his prominent standing in the community. It's a really big deal.

The Queen of Rex is always a young debutante. It's all very aristocratic. Carnival officially ends when the King and Queen of Rex meet, at midnight on Fat Tuesday, the Queen and King of Comus. When they meet, the traditional "Whenever I Cease To Love You" theme is played and true New Orleanians eyes fill with tears from memories of Mardi Gras past and the fact that they have to wait another year to have this much fun.

Once the Royalty of Comus and Rex meet, police take to the street on horseback - followed by street sweepers - announcing that Mardi Gras is over and people should "clear the streets." By this time, most people have had enough and are ready to rest. As soon as the last parade passes, the city begins the incredible task of cleaning up. All the garbage is weighed and this is how New Orleans estimates how many people came to Mardi Gras.

How Mardi Gras started is not really clear. There are plenty of legends and stories about early Carnival. But, it's not certain which are myth and which are fact.

Legend has it that the first Mardi Gras came to be because the early Christian church adopted and reformed the Roman feast of Lupercalia, a decadent three days of celebration, in order to convert the pagans. The early Church renamed the holiday to "carnelevamen," meaning "farewell to the flesh."

The French coined the phrase Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday , and brought the holiday with them when they settled New Orleans. In fact, in 1699 the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville landed near the mouth of the Mississippi River on Mardi Gras Day and named the plot of ground "Pointe du Mardi Gras."

Early Mardi Gras was not an organized, community event. The holiday was basically celebrated by throwing private, wild parties. After all, New Orleans was and still is a port city.

On February 24th, 1857, Mardi Gras was changed forever. This was the year that the first true Mardi Gras Krewe was formed. The club called themselves the Mystick Krewe of Comus, after the Greek god of revelry. Comus began the tradition of the elaborate Ball and Carnival parade. Over the years, many more Krewes were founded. It wasn't until the 1950's, however, that the Mardi Gras we know today came into fruition.

Probably as a result of the post-war baby boom, many more Carnival Krewes were formed in the fifties and sixties. Ask any local and they're bound to have fond memories of riding on a float with their family. Mardi Gras became a holiday for families to celebrate and spend time with each other. Today, Mardi Gras remains a time to gather with family and friends. In fact, people are expected to open their homes to friends and family if they live within walking distance of the parades.

In New Orleans, the more family oriented Carnival has moved into the suburb of Metairie. The rise in the number of Krewes and the population shift to the suburbs has created, really, two distinct Carnival traditions. Parades roll in New Orleans and in Metairie.

The parades that roll in New Orleans are either "old line" krewes like Rex or, what have come to be known as, "superkrewes." The "superkrewes" began in 1969 with the founding of Bacchus- named for thegod of wine. The city was stunned by the enormous floats designed by Blaine Kern (now a world famous designer of floats and other ornaments). In addition, this Krewe allowed anyone who paid dues to be a member. It didn't matter if you could trace your ancestry back to the buccaneers. The first King of Bacchus broke the most serious tradition. The King wasn't a community leader but Danny Kaye, a Hollywood star.

Today, Bacchus has become one of the largest and best parades in New Orleans and rolls the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Every year a different celebrity is made King and rides a special float. In 1995, Jean-Claude Van Damme rode as King. 1996 saw John Larroquette (Night Court), a New Orleans native, will ride as Royalty.

The founding of Bacchus started a new tradition. Soon after the debut of this incredible parade, other superkrewes were founded. Endymion, which rolls on the Saturday night before Mardi Gras, was established in 1974. Endymion throws a party called the "Extravaganza" and tickets to this event are cherished and hard to come by. The Extravaganza is a party held in the Superdome for some 10,000 people. Entertainment is provided by some of the top names in the business. In 1995, the 1,500 member Krewe of Endymion introduced the largest Mardi Gras float ever ! With the theme Welcome To The New Orleans Mardi Gras this float rolled with 150 maskers on board.

In 1994, Harry Connick Jr., a national celebrity and New Orleans native, began a new superkrewe called Orpheus that rolls on Lundi Gras - the Monday before Fat Tuesday. This Krewe is destined to become one of New Orleans favorites.

In Metairie, the krewes that parade are usually groups of people that started clubs for their families. The parades in Metairie have become more sophisticated and larger over the years and some of them rival the best New Orleans parade. However, most of the parades in Metairie rent their floats and you tend to see the same floats (modified a little) rolling night after night. But, if you want to keep away from the more rowdy New Orleans crowd, Metairie is a nice alternative.

The King Cake

In European Countries, the coming of the wisemen bearing gifts to the Christ Child is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. This celebration, called Epiphany, Little Christmas or the Twelfth Night, is a time of exchanging gifts and feasting.

All over the world people gather for festive twelfth night celebrations. One of the most popular customs is still the baking of a special cake in honor of the three kings --- "A King's Cake".

The Europeans hide a bean inside their cake and the person receiving the bean must portray one of the kings. Latin American people put a small figure inside the cake representing the Christ Child. It is said that a year of good fortune awaits the lucky person who gets the figure.

Louisianians like the idea of perpetuating the celebration by having the person who received the baby continue the festivities and another party and another cake. Starting the twelfth day after Christmas, King Cake Parties continue until the first day of Lent, ending on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras! King Cakes were originally a simple ring of dough with little decoration. The New Orleans King Cake is brightly decorated with Mardi Gras colored sugars and fruit.

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