Did you know that Mardi Gras has ancient roots? Come back with us to those bygone times and explore the festivities that have led to the sights and sounds of today’s modern-day celebration in New Orleans.
First, the vocabulary surrounding Mardi Gras and Carnival bears some explanation. The period between January 6, or the Epiphany (ending the twelve days of Christmastide) to Ash Wednesday is the Carnival season, which is based on Christian rituals. It precedes Lent, a roughly six-week period of sacrifice and prayer prior to Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras technically is the last day of the Carnival and is held on Fat Tuesday (although the Mardi Gras season is an accepted term often heard). In fact, the word “carnival” is thought to be from the “Medieval Latin word carnelevarium, meaning to take away or remove meat.”
Just as Carnival reflects Christian beliefs, ancient carnivals were also organized around the worship of a particular deity. One of the most well-known is the Bacchanalia, the festival dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and ecstasy. Called Dionysus by the Greeks before the Romans adopted him for their pantheon, Bacchus was believed to incite frenzied ecstasy among his followers. The Romans created a mystery cult to worship him and began celebrating the Bacchanalia during which they would initiate new members. According to the Roman historian Livy in his History of Rome, it would include wine and feasting “as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature… To think nothing unlawful was the grand maxim of their religion.”
The desire to gather in groups, eat, drink and be merry continued throughout antiquity. Such festivals as celebrating the end of winter, the coming of the harvest and the worship of a god were common in the known world. With the advent of Christianity, the festivals were no longer used to worship pagan gods, but were adapted to fit within the new faith. One early Christian carnival developed in Germany was called Fast Nacht. It included great feasting in order to eat richly and plentifully before fasting for Lent.
In France, medieval celebrations prior to Lent featured a richly laden feast of eggs, milk, cheese and meat. What better than to dub the day Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday?
As people began immigrating to the Americas, they brought their traditions and festivals with them. A handbook written in 1872 in New Orleans describes how this process led to the creation of Mardi Gras.
“In our city settled as it was by emigrants from the Southern States of Europe, where these festivals were observed with the greatest enthusiasm, it is natural that they should have been continued…Since time immemorial, so long back that the memory of the ‘oldest inhabitant runs not to the contrary,’ it has been customary for the people of the Crescent City to give themselves over to mirth and festivities on Mardi Gras. Years ago, maskers appeared on the streets in every conceivable costume, and on several occasions, processions of quite an imposing character paraded the streets…”
The parades were put on by various groups or krewes and were mostly celebrated by the Roman Catholic Creole community. However, the celebrations were fragmented and disorganized as the Mardi Gras we know today had yet to come into existence. Not until February 24th, 1857 was the revelry organized into an official event. Much of the credit for this is given to one particular krewe that still exists today and relies heavily on antiquity for its inspiration.
The Mistick Krewe of Comus was a secret society created when several Anglo-American businessmen in New Orleans decided they wanted to celebrate Mardi Gras without some of the activities they considered crude and lacking decorum. The name came from John Milton‘s Lord of Misrule in his masque Comus. The concept traces back to the Saturnalian celebrations of ancient Rome where a Lord of Misrule was appointed to appear as the god Saturn and reign over a topsy-turvy world: masters served slaves, political officers relinquished all power to slaves and the Lord of Misrule could have his way over anyone.
In his history of Mardi Gras Henri Schindler describes the impact of the Mistick Krewe of Comus:
“It was Comus, who, in 1857, saved and transformed the dying flame of the old Creole Carnival with his enchanter’s cup; it was Comus who introduced torch lit processions and thematic floats to Mardi Gras; and it was Comus who ritually closed, and still closes, the most cherished festivities of New Orleans with splendor and pomp.”
So popular were the festivities put on by the Mistick Krewe in 1857 that thousands of people returned for the next year’s celebrations. For the second annual parade in 1858 the krewe was said to have “revived the mythology of olden times in all its glory…Comus, Momus, Janus, Flora, Diana, Jupiter, and a host of other gods and goddesses were presented in splendid procession…”
These ancient and mythological themes became a hallmark of the Mistick Krewe until 1991 when they withdrew from parading rather than identify their membership in accordance with a new city ordinance banning discriminatory practices in memberships. The ban was later overturned based upon the right of free association, but the Mistick Krewe never returned to the parade, opting instead to sponsor a ball closing the Mardi Gras festivities on Fat Tuesday.
The first official Mardi Gras had a King of the Carnival called Rex, who opens and continues to close the festivities today. He too has an ancient connection. He was said to be “the offspring of Old King Cole and the Goddess Tershichore, whom, in imitation of Jove, he wooed and carried off in the form of an Irish Bull. He is, therefore, gifted with immortality by virtue of his Olympian origin on his mother’s side”.
Mardi Gras traditions continued to grow through the decades that followed. Ever wonder about the origins and meanings of the official colors of purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power)?
“Rex selected the official Mardi Gras colors in 1872 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexis Alexandrovich Romanoff, whose house colors were purple, green and gold. The 1892 Rex Parade theme “Symbolism of Colors” affirmed the colors’ meaning.”
Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the world, but perhaps none is so well-known or well-attended as the Carnival in New Orleans. As people take to the streets it is not difficult to imagine them as ancient revelers, drinking and feasting the night away. As the Handbook of Mardi Gras states,
“The Carnival, properly speaking, begins with the first of the new year, and the festivities commencing with the congratulations and friendly wishes appropriate to that time, increase in fervor until they end in the wild whirl of the grotesque and merry parades and shows of Mardi Gras…”