Mardi Gras

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Mardi Gras

(mär`dē grä), last day before the fasting season of Lent. It is the French name for Shrove TuesdayShrove Tuesday,
day before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). In the Latin countries it is the last day of the carnival, called by the French Mardi Gras.
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. Literally translated, the term means "fat Tuesday" and was so called because it represented the last opportunity for merrymaking and excessive indulgence in food and drink before the solemn season of fasting. In the cities of some Roman Catholic countries the custom of holding carnivals for Mardi Gras has continued since the Middle Ages. The carnivals, with spectacular parades, masked balls, mock ceremonials, and street dancing, usually last for a week or more before Mardi Gras itself. Some of the most celebrated are held in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Nice, and Cologne. For a full discussion of this subject, see carnivalcarnival,
communal celebration, especially the religious celebration in Catholic countries that takes place just before Lent. Since early times carnivals have been accompanied by parades, masquerades, pageants, and other forms of revelry that had their origins in pre-Christian
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Mardi Gras

Carnival, Fat Tuesday

The French call the last day of Carnival Mardi Gras, which means "Fat Tuesday." This name traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with French settlers and planted itself in the Louisiana Territory, a part of the United States first colonized by the French. Two large coastal cities developed in this region, Mobile, in what was later to become the state of Alabama, and New Orleans, in the state of Louisiana. The United States government purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, after which Anglo-American settlers joined the Creoles, colonists of French and Spanish descent who had already made their home there. Large numbers of African-American slaves also lived in New Orleans. These three groups all contributed elements to New Orleans's Mardi Gras festival.

Contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations are characterized by a series of ornate parades, featuring elaborately decorated floats carrying costumed revelers who throw souvenirs to the crowd. In addition, many people wander the streets in costumes ranging from the extremely simple and skimpy to the extremely elaborate. Much of the fun derived by festival-goers consists in just watching the costumed spectators pass by. Finally, some New Orleanians round out their Mardi Gras experience by attending fancy masquerade balls and banquets.

Early Street Masquerades and Costume Balls

The earliest documents to mention Carnival in Louisiana date back to the late eighteenth century. Some commentators point out, however, that Carnival is not routinely mentioned in historical documents until the early nineteenth century. They therefore conclude that New Orleans's Mardi Gras established itself in that era.

Street masquerades and costume balls were the first customs associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A startled visitor recorded his experience of New Orleans's street Carnival in the year 1835:

Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolical, horrible, humorous, strange masks and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds; snake's heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids, satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers, parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars &c, in rich confusion up and down the street, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they went their reckless way. (Gill, 36)

Not everyone came to Mardi Gras simply to put on a costume and have a good time parading through the streets. By the middle of the nineteenth century ruffians and prostitutes used the general mayhem of Mardi Gras to stage various illegal acts. Many law-abiding citizens stayed indoors during Carnival for fear of being assaulted and robbed.

In contrast to the rowdy Carnival of the streets, nineteenth-century New Orleans also hosted plenty of masked balls. These ranged, however, from exclusive high society affairs to dance hall parties that one could attend for the price of an entrance ticket. Historical evidence for the balls of Louisiana's Carnival season dates back to the time of the American Revolution. The season lasted from Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, which falls about two weeks after Christmas, to Carnival Tuesday. The public balls were often the scenes of coarse behavior and sometimes even violence, and by the middle of the nineteenth century they were discontinued. Private balls remained, however, and were especially popular among the well-to-do. These private balls continue today. The most exclusive affairs are those thrown by the oldest of the Carnival krewes, the social clubs that sponsor the Mardi Gras parades.

Mobile's Carnival and Cowbellion Society

Many Mardi Gras scholars point out that the first Carnival parades in the region were held in Mobile, Alabama, rather than New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1831 a group of intoxicated young men broke into a Mobile hardware store on New Year's eve and, seizing a supply of rakes and cowbells, marched through the city streets raising a racket. When asked who they were and what they were doing, the leader of the group quipped, "We're the Cowbellion de Rakin Society." Oddly enough this custom, which soon became associated with Carnival, may have its roots in old European Christmas customs. The leader of the motley group of paraders on that New Year's eve was himself of German extraction and had been reared in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where noisemaking and masking were customs associated with Christmas and New Year's. In any case, the group repeated its performance the following year, and soon the torchlit spree became a tradition. By the 1840s it had become a parade complete with floats. The tradition gave rise to Mobile's yearly Mardi Gras parades, which, though older than New Orleans's, are not as well known.

The Founding of New Orleans's Carnival Krewes

Around the mid-nineteenth century a group of well-to-do businessmen introduced a new element to New Orleans's Mardi Gras celebrations. The core of this group hailed from Mobile and had been members of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. In 1857 they formed a secret society called the Mystick Krewe of Comus whose main purpose was to design elaborate Mardi Gras floats and ride them in a parade throughout the city. In doing so they sought to draw attention away from the sleazy aspects of Mardi Gras and to instead add a note of refinement. The Krewe of Comus performed their parade at nighttime, their donkey-drawn carts illuminated by dozens of torches carried by African-American men. Members of the Krewe rode atop the floats in costumes, poses, and settings that illustrated their chosen theme. They took their parade themes from classical mythology and literature, and thus tried to set a civilized tone that would distinguish them from the wild revels in the streets. Indeed, the name "Comus" comes from a masque written by the famous English poet John Milton (1608-1674), and the first parade floats created by the Krewe of Comus featured characters from Milton's poem Paradise Lost (1674).

In the year 1872 two more krewes appeared on the New Orleans Mardi Gras scene, the Krewe of Rex and the Krewe of Momus. The Krewe of Rex was formed to honor the visit of the Russian grand duke Alexander III (1845-1894), the younger son of Tsar Alexander II. While in New York the Grand Duke had met and fallen in love with actress Lydia Thompson, whose stage show included the song "If I Ever Cease to Love." As the Rex parade passed the viewing stand the bands marching in the parade played "If I Ever Cease to Love" in the Grand Duke's honor. This tune has since established itself as the theme song of New Orleans's Mardi Gras. The Krewe of Rex gave birth to another Mardi Gras tradition that year. The man playing Rex wore a costume made of purple, gold, and green cloth. These became the official colors of Mardi Gras. Purple symbolizes justice, gold power, and green faith.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century New Orleans's Creole citizens did not mingle very easily with the city's Anglo-American population. The Mystick Krewe of Comus was composed primarily of Anglo-Americans. Krewe members adopted the French custom of masking yet they performed it in an orderly and regimented fashion heretofore unknown in New Orleans. Moreover, although they introduced the first Carnival float to New Orleans's Mardi Gras celebrations, they borrowed an established Creole custom in celebrating the success of their parade with a masked ball and banquet. As the krewes began to multiply and grow in popularity Creoles joined them in larger numbers, and the two elements of the city's elite began to socialize and do business together.

African-American Celebrations

Right from the start African Americans found themselves excluded from the Carnival krewes. Rather than accept this exclusion from official Carnival celebrations as defeat, they invented their own Mardi Gras traditions. In 1909 a group of black citizens got together and formed the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (named for a South African tribe), also known as the Krewe of Zulu. The Zulu parades mocked racial stereotypes and poked fun at Rex and the other pompous white krewes. Each year a king presided over Zulu's celebrations. In 1949 Louis Armstrong, the famous jazz trumpeter, himself a native of New Orleans, filled this role.

In addition, some African Americans formed their own loose-knit Carnival associations which bore invented Indian names. These black Indian krewes, or tribes, were unlike their white counterparts in that they were loosely organized under the direction of a big chief, paraded only in their own neighborhoods, and did not follow a set parade route and schedule. Krewe members sewed elaborate feathered and beaded costumes based loosely on the stylized Plains Indians costumes promoted by Buffalo Bill's wild west show. This tradition continues today, though few tourists venture away from the main parade routes to see the brilliant costumes displayed by the Mardi Gras Indians.

Finally, African-American-influenced music, such as jazz and blues, has gained widespread popularity and can be heard all over the city during Mardi Gras.

More New Krewes

Over the years more and more Carnival krewes formed, many also named after gods, goddesses, and other mythological figures. In 1941 the Krewe of Venus, the first all-female Krewe, appeared. In the 1960s and 1970s Mardi Gras began to expand from New Orleans proper into the suburbs. The addition of new krewes, whose membership was open to a wider range of people, helped to democratize the festival. These new krewes ignored some of the old Mardi Gras traditions and began to create their own. For example, the super krewes of Bacchus and Endymion started to hire celebrities to reign as their king or queen. The parades put on by these two extremely large krewes take place on the Saturday and Sunday before Mardi Gras. The two super krewes entertain festival-goers with about 75 floats and 60 marching bands.

Today New Orleans and its suburbs boast 57 registered Carnival krewes. Members pay large sums each year to fund their krewe's costumes, floats, throws, ball, and banquet. Indeed, because New Orleans's Mardi Gras is largely paid for by the krewes, it has been called the "greatest free show on earth." The krewes have ensured that the parades, with their elaborate floats and costumes, constitute the highlight of New Orleans's Mardi Gras. Although the Mardi Gras parade season lasts twelve days, the most impressive parades take place on the Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Krewe Cuts

The old krewes founded in the nineteenth century established a tradition of social exclusivity, drawing their members by invitation only from among families known to them and from a narrow range of ethnic, economic, and religious groups. They excluded blacks and Jews entirely. In the early 1990s a campaign led by city councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor challenged this exclusivity. She argued that membership in these elite Carnival krewes opened doors to many business opportunities and so membership restrictions served as a form of racial discrimination. The city council eventually passed a law requiring Carnival krewes to open their doors to all who can afford the membership fees. The law still permits the krewes to limit membership to a single sex, however. Of the old-line krewes only Rex agreed to comply with the new regulations. Comus, Momus, and Proteus opted to withdraw from the parades rather than integrate at the city's command. In the year 2000, Proteus decided to comply with the regulations and returned to the festivities.

Kings and Queens

The krewes' introduction of glamorous and organized Mardi Gras parades and parties not only contrasted with the disorder of street Carnival celebrations but also with their egalitarian nature. The processions and balls sponsored by the krewes were both orderly and exclusive. Even those invited to attend these affairs found themselves slotted into various ranks and categories that reflected and reinforced New Orleans's social hierarchies. For example, each year the Krewe of Rex, whose name means "king" in Latin, selects one member to reign as king. Other important krewe members are given titles of lesser nobility. Not long after Rex began this custom, their king was acknowledged by all as the king of New Orleans's Mardi Gras celebrations. Other krewes also treat the man selected to impersonate their figurehead as their king. In the 1880s the Krewe of Comus began to select a high society woman to rule with Comus as his queen. She in turn could choose members of her royal court. Soon other krewes, such as Rex, Momus, and Proteus, added this feature to their processions and masked balls. Later the roles of queen and court lady were relegated to young debutantes, with the honor of being selected as Queen of Comus understood to be the jewel in the crown of the debutante season.

Carnival Throws

In the early nineteenth century people on the street followed the old European custom of throwing things at one another during Carnival. Many threw flour, but some tossed more obnoxious substances like dirt, bricks and lye, a chemical that burns the skin. This practice led to the passage of a local law prohibiting throwing things during Carnival. The custom proved stronger than the law, however, and by the middle of the century some Creoles were riding through the city streets in carriages during Mardi Gras throwing candy and flowers to ladies and children on balconies. During the 1870s some krewes began to scatter candies and peanuts to parade watchers. Others picked friends and relatives out of the crowds and tossed party favors in their direction. In the 1920s the Krewe of Rex stepped up the custom of throwing favors into the crowd. They began to shower paradegoers with necklaces made of glass beads. This custom soon caught on with the other krewes and still lives today, though now the beads are made of plastic.

During the 1960s the krewes began to toss fake plastic coins which they called "doubloons." Nowadays in addition to these items the krewes scatter many different favors over the crowd, including plastic whistles, tiny stuffed animals, plastic cups, and even computer disks. People who line the parade route compete with one another in grabbing and collecting the trinkets thrown from the floats. Crying "Throw me something, mister," they hope to encourage the costumed krewe members aboard the floats to launch a handful of favors in their direction.

The production of Mardi Gras favors has become a big business. In 1991 the largest Mardi Gras supply house sold 41 million strings of beads. It has been estimated recently that in a single parade season the 2,300 krewe members of Bacchus and Endymion alone gave away 1.5 million plastic cups, 2.5 million doubloons and over 28 million strings of beads.

Old and New Traditions

The people of New Orleans still observe Epiphany, on January 6, as the start of the Carnival season. Mardi Gras balls and parties begin on this day and continue until Fat Tuesday. King's cake, originally an Epiphany treat, has become a food closely associated with the Carnival season. When cooks prepare this rich cake they mix a tiny trinket, usually in the shape of a baby, into the batter. People serve the cake at Mardi Gras parties. According to tradition, the person who gets the baby in their slice of cake throws the next party. It has been estimated that half a million king cakes are sold in Louisiana each year, and fifty thousand more are shipped out of state.

Also on Epiphany, the Phunny Phorty Phellows temporarily take over the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. This group consists of about fifty men and women who ride the streetcar in costume while munching on king cake and listening to the dixieland band that accompanies them. They enhance this enjoyable experience by tossing a variety of Mardi Gras throws to passersby. Their annual outing is a relatively new Mardi Gras tradition.

Another new tradition bespeaks the growing fame and popularity of New Orleans's Mardi Gras outside of New Orleans. In 1998 the Krewe of the Americas sponsored its first Mardi Gras parade. This krewe caters to people who are not from New Orleans, but would still like to march in a parade.

Finally, many citizens gather at the Spanish plaza on Mardi Gras eve to hail the ceremonial arrival of Rex, the King of Carnival. According to a time-honored Mardi Gras tradition, Rex and his entourage roll into New Orleans by riverboat and disembark to the acclaim of the gathered crowd.

Tourists and Commercialism

In the year 2000 an estimated two million tourists came to New Orleans for Carnival. Their spending generated about one billion dollars of income for the city. New Orleans is a relatively poor city that increasingly depends on tourist income. Unfortunately, many tourists come to Mardi Gras seeking to participate in its more decadent customs, such as excessive drunkenness, illegal drug use, public nudity, and illicit sex. This frustrates many locals, who see a creeping increase in this kind of behavior during Mardi Gras, but feel unable to lobby against it for fear of hurting the city's festival revenue. They long for the Mardi Gras of their childhood, remembered as a time when most festival-goers were families with children, who brought lawn chairs and barbecue grills out to the sidewalk and spent the day picnicking and watching floats. Nowadays, some worry about exposing their children to the festival.

Some locals also fear increasing commercialism will change the nature of Mardi Gras. In recent years corporate sponsors have sought advertising space on the floats or along the parade routes. In New Orleans, city law prohibits the use of floats for political or business advertising, but in the suburbs these laws don't apply and certain suburban krewes have leased floats to various business interests. Still, some observers believe they have spotted the beginning of a trend back toward smaller krewes, which they hope will not only steer Carnival floats away from commercialism but also yield more family-oriented and more sophisticated floats.

Further Reading

Burdeau, Cain. "Mardi Gras' Excesses Rain on Locals' Parade." Christian Sci- ence Monitor (February 26, 2001): 3. Christianson, Stephen G., ed. The American Book of Days. Fourth edition. New York: H. W. Wilson, 2000. Flake, Carol. New Orleans. New York: Grove Press, 1994. Gill, James. The Lords of Misrule. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1997. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Kinser, Samuel. Carnival American Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Lohman, Jon. "It Can't Rain Every Day: The Year-Round Experience of Carnival." Western Folklore 58, 3 (1999): 279-98. Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972.

Web Sites

For more information concerning Mardi Gras in New Orleans, see the following page, posted by the New Orleans's Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau:

The Louisiana State Museum's Mardi Gras exhibit offers a range of information on and images of Mardi Gras: . htm

For more on the Mardi Gras Indians, see:

Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Online offers a useful description of Mardi Gras in New Orleans:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Carnival (Mardi Gras)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Dates vary, between Epiphany and Shrove Tuesday (Ash Wednesday Eve)
Where Celebrated: Central America, Europe, South America, United States, Caribbean Islands, and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Carnival King, Forty Hours' Devotion, Fried Dough, King Cakes, Krewes, Ox
Colors: Purple, green, and gold (see KING CAKES )
Related Holidays: Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maslenitsa, Shrove Tuesday ORIGINS

Carnival is a time when Christians celebrate before the start of LENT. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The season known to Christians as Carnival actually extends all the way from EPIPHANY (January 6) to SHROVE TUESDAY, or the day before LENT. The Latin carne vale means "farewell to meat," but it could also be a broader reference to the pleasures that are forbidden during the forty days of Lent. Carnival in general is a time for feasting and self-indulgence, with the most intense period of celebration usually taking place the last three days before ASH WEDNESDAY and particularly on Shrove Tuesday. It features masked balls, lavish costume parades, torchlight processions, dancing, fireworks, and of course feasting on all the foods that will have to be given up for Lent. It is interesting to note that processions, feasting, and masquerades were also popular activities among the pagans during their spring festivals, which were designed to ensure the health and growth of their crops. Most of the features of the modern Carnival celebration are firmly rooted in a tradition that can be traced back to the fourteenth century.

One of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the world takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The parades, pageants, and costume balls go on for four days, but the highlight of the festival is the parade of the samba schools, which takes place on the Sunday and Monday preceding Ash Wednesday. The competition among Carnival

these neighborhood groups is fierce, and people spend months beforehand making costumes and learning special dances for the parade.

The most flamboyant Carnival celebration in the United States takes place during the two weeks preceding Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was known among New Orleans' early French settlers as Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday") because the day before the start of Lent was traditionally a time to use up all the milk, butter, eggs, and animal fat left in the kitchen. This grand celebration culminates in a series of parades organized by groups known as KREWES . With marching jazz bands and elaborately decorated floats, the parades attract over a million spectators every year.

New Orleans' Mardi Gras has been cancelled only a few times in its 150 year history-during a 1979 police strike, the Civil War, and two World Wars. But it came very close to being cancelled again in February 2006. The previous year, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, damaging many critical levees, leaving eighty percent of the city underwater, claiming more than 1,600 lives, and decimating city infrastructure, schools, hospitals and libraries.

Many residents of New Orleans, still mourning the loss of family, friends, and neighbors, felt it was too soon and too painful to celebrate Mardi Gras. Others thought the city needed to proceed with its cherished tradition in order to demonstrate its resilience, provide a needed distraction, and to promote psychological healing and financial recovery. Ultimately, the 2006 Mardi Gras did take place with over half of New Orleans' pre-Katrina residents still missing from the city, a diminished crowd of visitors, fewer krewes, and parades shortened and re-routed to circumvent the most severely damaged sections of the city.


Carnival King

Carnival is an especially important season for Roman Catholics. In Italy, Spain, France, and other European countries where the influence of Rome has been the strongest, a popular feature of Carnival celebrations is a burlesque figure, often made out of straw and known as the Carnival King. When his brief reign over the Carnival festivities is over, the king is usually shot in public, burned, drowned, or otherwise destroyed while the onlookers cheer openly. This may be a symbolic act designed to rid the spectators of their folly and sinfulness.

One theory about the origin of the Carnival King is that he is a direct descendant of the old King of the SATURNALIA, the ancient Roman festival held in December. This pagan king was a man chosen to impersonate the Roman agricultural god Saturn for the duration of the celebration; but at the end, he suffered a real death rather than a make-believe one. The brutal custom of putting a mock king to death eventually faded, but the idea of appointing someone to reign over the festivities appears to have survived in the figure of the Carnival King.

Forty Hours' Devotion

To encourage good Christians to compensate for the excessive behavior exhibited at Carnival time, Pope Benedict XIV in 1748 instituted a special devotion for the three days preceding Lent. Called the "Forty Hours of Carnival," it is still held in many American and European churches where carnival celebrations are a longstanding tradition. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed all day Monday and Tuesday, and devotions are held in the evening.

Fried Dough

Most Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations throughout the world include the preparation of some form of fried dough. In New Orleans, for example, the beignet is a square doughnut without a hole, similar to a fritter. In some areas of Germany, where Carnival is called Fastnacht, fried dough is served in the form of Fast- nachtkuchen. This raised doughnut was brought to the United States by the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania, and such fried cakes can still be found in other German-settled areas of the country.

Since it was customary on Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," to use up all the animal fat in the house before the start of Lent, food was often fried so the fat wouldn't go to waste.

King Cakes

The round or oval cakes known as King Cakes are one of the primary foods associated with the Carnival season. They are frosted with alternating bands of sugar in the three colors that have become associated with Mardi Gras: purple, symbolizing justice; green, symbolizing faith; and gold, symbolizing power. There are tiny dolls-or sometimes a bean-hidden in the cakes, and whoever is served the piece containing the doll or bean is crowned king for a day. In New Orleans, where the Carnival season begins with the Bal du Roi (King's Ball), a Parisian tradition, the person who gets the doll has to hold the next ball. These balls continue throughout the season, with the final one being held on Mardi Gras.


The private clubs known as "krewes" that give parties, parades, and balls during the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans can be traced back to 1831 in Mobile, Carnival

Alabama. A man named Michael Krafft had been out celebrating New Year's Eve with his friends when they decided to break into a hardware store. They stole some cowbells and rakes, and paraded through the streets making as much noise as possible. This incident led to the establishment of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, which organized a rowdy costume parade the following year featuring tableaux and dancing. In 1857, six men from Mobile who had been members of the society and who now lived in New Orleans decided to introduce a similar organization there, which they called the Mystick Krewe of Comus-a reference both to the masque (a dramatic entertainment featuring elaborate costumes, scenery, music, and dancing) Comus, written by English poet John Milton, and to the Greek and Roman god of revelry, feasting, and nocturnal entertainment. The word "krewe" is supposed to have come from the Anglo-Saxon spelling of "crew."

By 1988, there were approximately sixty other krewes in New Orleans, and today they parade through the streets for nearly three weeks before Mardi Gras. Comus remains the most traditional krewe, producing floats for the parade similar to those seen a hundred years ago. The other krewes-with names like Rex, Zulu, Proteus, and Momus-are also private clubs, often linked to old-line Protestant or Catholic social networks. In addition, there are "maverick" krewes whose membership is open to anyone who can pay the required fee. The floats designed by the krewes range from the most traditional-small, delicate floats with a great deal of ornamental sculpture and extensive use of gold and silver foil-to considerably less formal processions of decorated vans and trucks.

Some think that the krewes and their parades go back to the reynages of medieval France-make-believe kingdoms established as part of the Carnival celebration. It is also possible that the floats seen in today's Mardi Gras parades were derived from religious tableaux originally performed in churches but moved outside when they became too rowdy.


One theory regarding the origin of "Fat Tuesday" or Mardi Gras is that it was named after the practice of leading a fattened ox through the village streets before Lent. Afterward, it was slaughtered to provide the final meal before Lenten restrictions on meat and dairy products went into effect.

In many Carnival celebrations held in France today, a fattened ox plays a central role in the festivities. A child known as the "king of butchers" usually rides in a decorated car behind the ox, and people throw confetti or blow horns as the ox and the butcher pass by. In New Orleans, the Krewe of Rex (see KREWES ) is credited with reintroducing the fattened ox to the Mardi Gras celebration by using it as the theme for a giant float.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.


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Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Mardi Gras

February-March; two weeks before Ash Wednesday
The most flamboyant of Mardi Gras (from the French for "fat Tuesday") celebrations in North America culminates in a riot of parades and throngs of laughing, drinking, dancing people in the streets of New Orleans, La.
The Mardi Gras celebrations symbolize New Orleans, "The City that Care Forgot," to most people. The festivities actually start on Jan. 6 ( Epiphany) with a series of private balls. The tempo picks up in the last two weeks of the Carnival season, when the streets ring with 30 separate parades organized by committees called krewes . The parades consist of marching jazz bands and lavishly decorated two-story floats carrying the costumed and masked krewe royalty who toss "throws" to pleading spectators; these are beads or bonbons or the coveted Mardi Gras doubloons. Each of the parades has 15 to 20 floats, all decorated to express a certain theme.
Two of the biggest and most elaborate parades, the Krewe of Endymion and the Bacchus parade, take place on the weekend before Mardi Gras. On the day of Mardi Gras, designated the "Day of Un-Rule," the traditional parades spotlight Rex, King of Carnival and Monarch of Merriment, in the morning, and Comus, God of Revelry, by torchlight at night. On that same evening the private balls of Rex and Comus are held. At midnight, the madness of Carnival ends, and Lent begins, and a million or so spectators and participants face sobriety.
New Orleans had its first organized Mardi Gras parade in 1857. It consisted of two floats and was presented by the first Carnival society, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, its name alluding to John Milton's masque, Comus . The parade was apparently well received; it was one of the first local institutions revived after the Civil War.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the best known, but not the oldest Mardi Gras. A two-week pre-Lenten celebration in Mobile, Ala., stands alone as the oldest celebration of Mardi Gras in the country. It was first observed in 1703 by the French who had founded the port city the year before. When the Spanish occupied Mobile in 1780, they moved it to the eve of the Twelfth Night of Christmas and paraded in grotesque costumes and masks. The celebrations were suspended during the Civil War, but were revived in 1866 by Joe Cain, a town clerk who togged himself out as an Indian chief and rode through the streets in a charcoal wagon. The old Mardi Gras societies reappeared, and new ones evolved.
Today a different mystic society parades each evening in the two weeks before Lent, and balls are held that are open to everyone. Mardi Gras itself, the day before Ash Wednesday, is a legal holiday in the state of Louisiana.
Galveston, Texas, has a 12-day period of whoop-de-do leading up to the actual day of Fat Tuesday in this barrier-island city of Texas. About 200,000 spectators are attracted to the Mardi Gras festival, which was first held here in 1867. Though it died out at the turn of the century, it was revived in 1985. Growing bigger every year, this celebration features masked balls, royal coronations, Cajun dances, jazz performances, and, of course, numerous parades with dramatic floats.
See also Carnival and Shrove Tuesday
New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau
2020 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70130
800-672-6124 or 504-566-5011; fax: 504-566-5046
Mobile Convention and Visitors Corporation
1 S. Water St.
P.O. Box 204
Mobile, AL 36602
800-566-2453 or 251-208-2000; fax: 251-208-2060
Mardi Gras Galveston official site
Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau
Visitor Information Center
Galveston, TX 77550
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 128
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 32
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 193
EncyEaster-2002, p. 364
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 88
GdUSFest-1984, p. 5
RelHolCal-2004, p. 91

Celebrated in: France

Mardi Gras (France)
Between February 3 and March 9; Tuesday before Ash Wednesday
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the last day of Carnival, the three-day period of uninhibited celebration that precedes Lent. The festivities in France are particularly colorful in southern cities like Cannes, Menton, and Grasse, all in Alpes-Maritimes department, where people go out in the streets in costume and indulge in all sorts of noisy pranks, such as tooting tin horns and pelting passersby with confetti and flowers. Each town, in fact, has its own bataille de fleurs (battle of flowers) right before Lent, with people in flower-decked cars and floats driving for hours along the streets and boulevards, throwing flowers at each other.
One of the great celebrations of Europe is the carnival at Nice, where grotesque, caricatured figures parade down the Avenue de la Gare—among them giant cabbages and carrots, gnomes, devils on horseback, nymphs, and fairies. King Carnival, dressed in striped hose and a slashed doublet, leads the parade from his throne on a float draped with purple velvet. On the night of Mardi Gras, the King Carnival effigy is burned at the stake.
In Paris and some other French cities, butchers observe Carnival with the fÉte of the Boeuf Gras, or Fat Ox. An ox decked with garlands of greenery, flowers, and ribbons is led through the streets in procession, followed by a triumphal cart bearing a young boy known as the "King of the Butchers." The crowd pays tribute to him by blowing horns and throwing confetti, flowers, and sweets.
See also Nice Carnaval
French Government Tourist Office
444 Madison Ave., Fl. 20
New York, NY 10022
800-391-4909 or 212-838-7800; fax: 212-838-7855
BkFest-1937, p. 120
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 33
FestWestEur-1958, p. 34

Celebrated in: France

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

Mardi Gras

festive day celebrated at the close of the pre-Lenten season in France and in New Orleans. [Fr. and Am. Trad.: EB, VI, 608]
See: Gaiety
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
man tosses the crowds The Mobile Mardi Gras colours are purple and gold (green was a New Orleans invention) and one of the most sought after treats, thrown from the floats by the bucket-load, are Moon Pies.
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During the weekends leading up to Mardi Gras, the streets of New Orleans come alive with flamboyant parades.
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On Saturday, February 6th, HarborWalk Village will host the 8th Annual Mardi Gras Parade on the Destin Harbor.
LIKE me, you may make the mistake of thinking Mardi Gras is only found in New Orleans - home of jazz, gumbo and rum punch.
and and LIKE me, you may make the mistake of thinking Mardi Gras is only found in New Orleans - home of jazz, gumbo and rum punch.
Canaval de Canal Mardi Gras Party The Worcester Canal District will be transformed into New Orleans with food, entertainment and more.