The carnivale season officially begins each year on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, ‘King’s Day’, with traditional balls occurring in the weeks that lead up to the big event. Spectacular parades with beautiful and creative floats begin parading approximately two weekends prior to Mardi Gras Day. And don’t forget the private carnivale clubs, called krewes, which take on royalty status and throw beads, doubloons and toys to parade goers, while visitors quickly learn to say “Throw Me Something, Mister!”
However, the traditions of today migrated from medieval Europe and evolved in south Louisiana over generations beginning as early as 1699 when French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles south of New Orleans, naming it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” since it was the eve of the holiday.
Jean Baptiste ultimately established New Orleans in 1718 and quickly instituted traditions from Rome and Venice including parading to signal the coming Lenten meat fast, which occurred on Fat Tuesday. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls, the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeauxs,” lit the way for the krewe members. In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, invoking John Milton’s hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought 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.”
Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance. Beginning in 1886, full color images were printed, doing justice to the fabulously ornate floats and costumes of world-renown designers whose works were brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache’ artist Georges Soulie’, who for forty years was responsible for creating all of carnivale’s floats and processional outfits.
A King of Carnivale, Rex, was invented in1872 by a group of businessmen to preside over the first daytime parade. Honoring visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, they introduced his family colors of purple, green and gold as carnivale’s official colors. Purple stands for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.
In 1873, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it still is.
Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs. All of these parade organizations are completely funded by their members. Therefore, many New Orleanians call Mardi Gras the “Greatest Free Show on Earth”!
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