While not observed nationally throughout the United States, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations. Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition. The tradition in New Orleans expanded to the point that it became synonymous with the city in popular perception, and embraced by residents of New Orleans beyond those of French or Catholic heritage.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeaux,” lit the way for the krewe’s members, and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity. In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, invoking John Milton’s hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans, with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls.
In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second “Krewe,” the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed, with the first account of Mardi Gras “throws”.
The traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple (symbolic of justice), green (symbolic of faith) and gold (symbolic of power).
The King Cake
Mardi Gras season begins on January 6, of each year and ends on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent. One of the wonderful traditions of Mardi Gras, and probably the most delicious, is the King Cake.
On the Christian calendar, the 12th day after Christmas is celebrated as the date that the gift-bearing Magi visited the baby Jesus. This day, January 6, is known by several names, including “Epiphany”, “Twelfth Night”, or “Kings Day”. The celebration of this event has evolved over the centuries, with each culture adding its own unique rituals. The New Orleans tradition, borrowing heavily from European influences, is believed to have begun in the 1870’s. As part of this celebration, it is now traditional to bake a cake in honor of the three kings – the King Cake. King Cakes are oval-shaped to symbolize the unity of faiths. Each cake is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors – purple representing justice, green representing faith, and gold representing power. A small baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, is traditionally hidden inside each King Cake.
In New Orleans, King Cake parties are held throughout the Mardi Gras season. In offices, classrooms, and homes throughout the city, King Cakes are sliced and enjoyed by all. Like the Biblical story, the “search for the baby” adds excitement, as each person waits to see in which slice of cake the baby will be discovered. While custom holds that the person who “finds” the baby will be rewarded with “good luck”, that person is also traditionally responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next party or gathering.
The “traditional” King Cake is made from twisted strands of cinnamon dough, covered by poured sugar and sprinkled with purple, green and gold colored sugar. Today, many additional varieties of King Cake are also available by adding cream cheese, or other fillings to the “traditional” King Cake.
Proud residents who participate in the 70 or so parades leading up to Fat Tuesday claim that Mardi Gras parades boast the most imaginative themes, spectacular floats and outrageous costumes in the world.
During the 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras, the parades are held in the four-parish area of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard. Competition for the best floats is friendly but fierce!
Throw Me Something, Mister!
One of the most unique aspects of the Mardi Gras parades is its participatory nature. Normally mature people have sheepishly admitted to becoming competitive — and almost addicted — to collecting the most throws from strategic positions along the streets. One prized throw is the doubloon. A doubloon is an aluminum coin that is imprinted with the insignia of the parade crew on one side and the theme of the parade on the other.
You don’t have to wear a costume; however, when you look around, you may feel stranger out of costume than in it. Costuming is big business in New Orleans.
Originally, costumes were worn to keep the identities of krewe members secret. Today, the secretiveness is no longer important.
Most official Mardi Gras balls are (and always have been) formal and private affairs, with the only attendees usually being members of the individuals Krewes and their invited guests. An integral part of any Mardi Gras ball is the revealing of the reigning King and Queen of the Krewe, whose identities are a closely guarded secret until the night of the festivities. Prior to the actual dancing, many Krewes stage Tableaux. A Tableau is a “still-life” depiction of a scene by costumed Krewe members and based on the theme of the ball itself.
The Greasing of the Poles
Every year on the Friday before Mardi Gras Day there’s a tradition of greasing the poles that support the galleries in the French Quarter. This is a safety measure because on more than one occasion an intoxicated reveler has tried to climb up one of these poles to get at the beads.
Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras Indians are African-American Carnival revelers in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel.
Collectively, their organizations are called “tribes”. There are about 38 tribes. They range in size from a half dozen to several dozen members. The tribes are largely independent, but a pair of umbrella organizations loosely coordinate the Uptown Indians and the Downtown Indians.
In addition to Mardi Gras Day, many of the tribes also parade on the Sunday nearest to Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19 (“Super Sunday”).