Mardi Gras: A Lesson in Tradition

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It is that time of year, where stores have bright colors on display and masks available everywhere for parties. Tis’ the season of Mardi Gras, otherwise translated into English as Fat Tuesday. It is the season where before the religious season of Lent begins, people everywhere celebrate before the need to fast the next day, Ash Wednesday, if your into that sort of thing. However, while Mardi Gras is celebrated everywhere the center of all celebration is the city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras originally came over from Paris to North America as early as 1699. This was when explorer Iberville and his men explored the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. They set up a spot 60 miles south of the location we know as New Orleans today, Iberville and his men, thus knowing that the day was March 3, set up the locations as Pont du Mardi Gras.

However, Mardi Gras predates the French as it was a holiday that originally started out in pagan traditions. When the Christians eventually rose to power, they saw that they could not keep the pagan traditions away from the people eventually made them more Christian, and turned that season into one that preludes the Christian season of Lent.

In the late 1700s, balls and fetes were held throughout New Orleans during this season, although during French rule during this season, the tradition of masked balls flourished, although it was later banned by the Spanish who ruled later. After New Orleans became an American city in 1823, and four years after that street masking was allowed.

In the 1837, a group of revelers walked down a street in costume and became the first document parade, but after a bunch of violent behavior had the press calling for an end to Mardi Gras. Later on groups called krewes were formed which helped to reign in some of the wildness of the season. The first of these krewes was a group called Comus.

Fast forward many years, by the time the 50s rolled around there were many cases of Mardi Gras being cancelled due to wars overseas. By the 60s, tourist commissions were trying to tell hippies that the term Greatest Free Show on Earth was not to be taken literally and were worried that the group called Hell’s Angels, a dangerous motorcycle gang would try to crash Mardi Gras. Thankfully nothing happened.

According to New Orleans Official Guide, “Thinking that the group’s antics were undignified, portions of the black community put pressure on Zulu. [This was the group that was infamous in New Orleans for their king wearing a “lard can” crown and holding a banana stalk scepter, according to the history of the group.] The king resigned and the 1961 parade was almost canceled.” The group thrived and with it the main spot of the 1969 season. Over the years so many different things happened since then with finally in 1992, the New Orleans government stepping in and having all parading krewes have open membership with Comos, and two other krewes protesting the law and with a krewe called Rex allowing membership to blacks.

Since this time Mardi Gras as become synonymous for a time to party yet it does not have to be all about the parties. It is a time for celebration and with that celebration comes a time for celebrating before the next day.

According to history.com, “Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese that remained in their homes, preparing for several weeks of eating only fish and fasting.” This is a tradition that is still somewhat alive today.

Along with the food, there is a traditional King Cake that is served that goes back to traditions in the Middle Ages in France. A tradition was then formed besides giving gifts to children to have this cake that has taken many forms over the years. Tradition has it that a plastic baby is hidden somewhere in the cake. The tradition is that whoever finds the figurine is responsible for getting next year’s cake.

Another tradition is the bead throwing, when the Russian Grand Duke Alexis visited New Orleans in 1872, the newly formed krewe called Rex chose the colors that the krewe members would throw during their parade to parade revelers. According to History.com, “Later, they assigned meaning to each color: purple stood for justice, green for faith and gold for power. The idea was to toss the beads to those in the crowd who exhibited these traits; the people who caught them were said to get good luck for the coming year.”

A famous tradition during Mardi Gras are those of the Zulu coconuts. After hosting its first parade in 1909, the krewe the next year threw coconuts to the crowd. Originally the coconuts were left brown and hairy but over the years were painted and covered in glitter. Nowadays, these coconuts are handed to members of the crowd rather than thrown in order to avoid lawsuits and injuries.

As can be seen, Mardi Gras and the entirety of the Carnival season is filled with numerous traditions and histories that are not enough to be summed up in this blog post. Mardi Gras is a time of celebration before we bounce into a somber time during the Christian season of  Lent.  We hope you have a great time and happy Mardi Gras!

Author: Courtney Swessinger

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