Mardi Gras traditions do not need to be explained, but the celebrations may need to be further understood. African and European customs intermingled with Americana in the creation of Mardi Gras. The festival marked with costumes, alcohol, floats, and beads first began with simple New Orleans campfire celebrations in 1699. By the 1730’s, people in processions wore masks. Slaves carried flambeaux, or torches, to allow the Carnival season to extend into the evening. Large scale parades began in 1857. Louisiana legalized the holiday in 1872 as a way to revitalize New Orleans after the Civil War. Since then, Mardi Gras has continued to grow into something distinct and a large money maker.
The term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.” It adopted its origins from Roman festival of Lupercalia, a pastoral event meant to purify a city and advert the evil spirits. Lupercalia was held between February 13th to 15th. Since people had time to celebrate the holiday before the spring planting, the fathers of the Christian church usurped the holiday as their own.
Carnival season became the last big celebration before the start of Lent, a period of 40 days of penance set between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In its current rendition, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has incorporated classical European traditions of mask wearing, bead throwing, and the election of a Mardi Gras king with more modern traits such as torchbearers and coconut painting, Mardi Gras traditions require a deeper explanation.
Wearing masks during Carnival was a way for all European classes to liberate themselves from their social status and be whomever they desired for a few days. A peasant could masquerade as a duke, a duke a commoner. In New Orleans, masking for all attendees on Fat Tuesday is legal on one other day of the year: Halloween. Store owners post signs asking patrons to remove their masks before entering their establishments — the policy reduces the chance of a robbery.
Bead throwing used to be done with glass beads until plastic ones were introduced in 1958. Traditionally, people wanted three different colors: green for faith, gold for power, and purple for justice. The original idea was to throw the bead to the person who best exemplified the color’s meaning. Bead throwing has evolved over the years. Instead of finding those considered faithful, powerful, or the just, it’s more of a contest to see how many girls will lift their shirts and expose themselves. A little alcohol in the midst of city-sanctioned debauchery will garner a good many women wearing a lot of beads and a sly grin.
Every Carnival has a Rex, the King of Carnival, waving to his subjects while parading on his float. The first Rex crowned was in 1872 when George Armstrong Custer had his guest, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, crowned when they visited the city. Usually, the new king tends to be a prominent citizen of New Orleans and receives the keys to the city from the mayor.
Torch bearers known as flambeaux allowed the festivities to continue at night. With the advent of gas and electric lights, the flambeaux transformed the tradition into a performance by spinning their lit kerosene lights.
Painted coconuts or “golden nuggets” are compliments of the Krewe or the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. A tradition since 1910, the coconuts are elaborately decorated and highly sought during Mardi Gras. Since 1988, the coconuts are no longer thrown. Instead, they are handed out.
Mardi Gras traditions have grown since their simple campfire inceptions of 1699 or the desire of a city to create a special holiday in 1872 as a tourist attraction. With Mardi Gras falling during spring break, college students flock to the city for a chance to party. For them, Mardi Gras traditions do not require an explanation; the festivity only requires bead throwing, drinking, and partying.
By Brian T. Yates