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Mardi Gras and Carnival

Food For Thought

The term “Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday” and refers to the day before the beginning of Lent when Christians used up any rich foods before giving them up during the Lenten period, along with parties and other self-indulgences. The day was the last opportunity for merrymaking, revelry and indulgence in food and drink for the 40 days leading up to Easter.
What is known as Carnival, and often mistakenly regarded as the essence of Mardi Gras, began in Mexico in the 1600s. Spanish landowners were in the habit of observing the day before Lent with elaborate feasts and parties. The Mexican natives, seeing the gaiety and excess, began to copy the celebrations with their own parties imitating the dances, dress and manners of the Spanish landowners. Initially involving just the one day before Lent, the Carnival celebration evolved to a longer period involving parades, pageants, costumes, floats, masked balls and dancing in the streets.
Some cities are famous for their elaborate Carnival celebrations, notably; New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala., which have both been celebrating in this fashion since the 19th century. Many other American cities follow their lead in putting on elaborate and spectacular celebrations.
Some traditional rural celebrations have also survived to the present. In southwestern Louisiana, Cajuns, a culture descended from a group of French Canadian refugees, have developed their own version of Carnival. Since the 1700s, riders on horseback, elaborately costumed, ride throughout the community on that day begging for ingredients to make gumbo, while others prepare for their arrival by making arrangements for a party. At sunset, the riders arrive with their ingredients and join the party.
During the 18th century, many wealthy Louisiana families would leave their rural plantations to spend the winter months in New Orleans where they held lavish parties and masked balls. The first written reference to Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans appears in a 1781 report of the Spanish government, which controlled Louisiana.
In 1857, a group calling itself The Mystik Krewe of Comus staged the first modern Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, a torch-lit nighttime procession of floats illustrating themes from classical mythology and literature.
In today’s New Orleans, residents decorate the city with streamers and flags in the traditional Mardi Gras colors; green, gold and purple. Festivities begin for many on Jan. 6 when king cakes are served during the feast of Epiphany, a holiday commemorating the day three kings arrived from the east to honor the Christ child. In the past, a king cake containing a bean or a small baby figurine was divided and served to the unmarried women attending a Mardi Gras banquet. Whoever received the slice containing the hidden object was crowned queen of the festival. Today king cakes are popular with office workers and the person who finds the hidden treasure is obliged to buy the next day’s cake.
Parades through the streets begin 12 days before Mardi Gras Day, sponsored by organizations known as Krewes. During the parades, costumed Krewe members ride on the floats and toss strings of plastic beads and other trinkets into the crowds of spectators lining the streets. Many Krewes hold elaborate, private balls following their parades. On Mardi Gras Day, many ordinary people dress in costume and wander through the city. Revelers jam the narrow streets of the city’s oldest neighborhood, known as the French Quarter.
The New Orleans brass band tradition has been part of the black community in New Orleans for over a century. The “parade-jazz” sound evolved out of groups that accompanied funeral processions and performed at annual Mardi Gras celebrations. Featuring trumpets, saxophone, trombone, tuba, snare drum and percussion, elements of this musical form are at the core of the early New Orleans jazz sound pioneered by Joe (“King”) Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
Following the American Civil War, many new Krewes soon began offering additional parades and balls. The Krewe of Rex, organized in 1872, pioneered many innovations that became defining features of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Rex established the tradition of crowning a King of Carnival, selected the Carnival colors, and adopted the song “If Ever I Cease to Love” as a Mardi Gras anthem. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mardi Gras became increasingly important to New Orleans. The festivities attracted visitors, generated income for local merchants, and added to the city’s mystique.