No one really knows how Mardis Gras started – traditions have an annoying tendency to get muddled. Some trace it back to the Romans, who celebrated a circus-like festival called the Lupercalia. When Rome became a Christian nation, the leaders of the church decided to incorporate many pagan holidays into the church calendar, rather than scrap them altogether. Thus Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” – became an official Christian celebration, a time of feasting and wild abandon right before Lent, a time of penance.
New Orleans is famous for its awe-inspiring Mardi Gras celebrations – which French colonists started in the early 1700s. Masked balls and rowdy behavior was common even then, and in 1806 any celebration of Mardi Gras was forbidden by law when the Spanish government took over the city. The law was about as successful as the Prohibition was a century later; people partied anyway. In 1817, the wearing of masks was declared illegal, but when the Americans came to power in 1827, everything was made legal again. Students, returning home from French universities, were inspired by the outlandish costumes and dances in the streets of Paris, and began introducing them to New Orleans. The celebration became an upward spiral of increasing decadence and pomp.
In 1857, a group of men decided Mardi Gras could be even better with a bit of organization. They founded a secret society called the Mystick Krewe of Comus, and planned a massive parade, complete with floats and a masked ball afterward. Before long, similar invitation-only “krewes” formed and organized their own parades.
When Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia visited New Orleans in 1872, the Krewe of Rex made their debut. The members of Rex elected a “king for the day” to give the Grand Duke a royal reception – making up for the lack of American royalty. Instant tradition: the arrival of the Rex King by riverboat is now an essential part of Mardi Gras.
Millions of beaded necklaces, small toys, play coins, and other trinkets are thrown from the paraders to the crowd – one of the more souvenir-oriented traditions. The most prized throws are hand-decorated coconuts from the Krewe of Zulu, and only a few manage to take one of them home each year. To make sure they get throws, the crowd will do anything from dressing up like priests to discarding clothing – all in the tradition of a final fling before Lent’s time of penance and fasting. Which, conveniently enough, gets shuffled off to the side these days. Chalk another one up to human nature![Tim Eaton lives in Eastern Washington, where people sometimes try to celebrate Mardi Gras. He writes random thoughts at blog.ninepence.com and brushes his teeth twice a day.] [This article appears in the premiere print issue of RELEVANT magazine available now.]
READ MORE LIFE | POST COMMENTS BELOW