In various cities – except Milan* – around the world today it is the last day of Carnival and the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. It is a day that goes by many names: Shrove Tuesday, Fastnachtsdienstag, Terça-feira Gorda, Sprengidagur** or, probably the best known, Mardi Gras. And one of the most famous celebrations of the days leading up to Fat Tuesday takes place in New Orleans.
It is not known when the first celebration of the days of Shrovetide and Mardi Gras took place in New Orleans but festivities were recorded in the area as early as the second of March 1699 when Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, his brother Jean-Baptiste and their men marked the day before Ash Wednesday with a feast. As Nouvelle Orleans became established there are accounts, in private correspondence and public notice, of balls, processions, masquerades and at times ensuing unruliness. Often when the festivities got out of hand they were prohibited but the bans could cause as much trouble as the partying and were quickly lifted.
In 1833 Bernard de Marigny, a fascinating Creole nobleman, playboy, planter, politician, duelist, writer, land developer, and gambler, raised the money to sponsor an official Mardi Gras celebration for the city. Twenty-three years later a group of businessmen gathered to form a secret society with the purpose of observing Mardi Gras with a formal parade and ball. With the formation of The Mistick Krewe of Comus, what had been largely a Catholic Creole celebration was taken over by Anglo-American Protestants. But in true New Orleans fashion the two cultures mixed and melded and the pattern of parades, balls and masquerades was set.
By 1875 Mardi Gras was declared a legal state holiday in Louisiana and though sometimes in reduced forms because of war, weather or politics it has been celebrated in the streets of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes ever since.
Following the example of Comus krewes began to organize often based on socio-economic foundations: Knights of Momus (1872), Krewe of Proteus (1882) and Rex (1872) are amongst the oldest. Rex was formed to organize the festivities surrounding the visit of the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, the son of Tsar Alexander II, who was on a goodwill visit to the United States and took in the Carnival of 1872. However the businessmen who formed the Krewe were also seeking to improve the tourist trade in the city in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Rex parade is perhaps the most celebrated of the many parades and holds a special place in the calendar of events as the major parade on Fat Tuesday. On Lunedi Gras Rex and his consort are greeted by the Mayor of New Orleans who offers the King of Carnival the key to the city. Rex – never King Rex as that would be redundant – has sent out a general proclamation (often designed by a well-known local artist) inviting one and all to view the Rex Parade on its traditional route.
However that evening’s masked ball is by invitation only and marks the beginning of the end of the season. The Rex Ball and the Comus Ball are held in adjacent halls and at an appointed time Comus sends a herald to greet Rex, his consort and court and invites them to join in their festivities. “The Meeting of the Courts” and the grand procession of the two courts that follow mark the last event of Mardi Gras. After the royal parties have departed the Captain of Comus proclaims that carnival is over for another year.
Recently one of the neglected traditions of Mardi Gras has fortunately been revived: the Parade Bulletin. Beginning in 1874 New Orleans’ newspapers would print pictorial bulletins of the parades for that day. It gave visitors and locals a tease of what was to come as well as a souvenir of what they had seen. The practice was discontinued in 1941 and Bulletins became treasured and valuable souvenirs of the past.
Rex began publishing them for their parade in 2002. The New Orleans Advocate revived the practice and began issuing Bulletins for many of the major parades and krewes in 2014.
Rex Parade – Symbolism of Colours – Mardi Gras (March 1) 1892
Though previously pulled by horses the Rex floats are now mechanized but are still build on the frame work of old wooden wagons with wood-spoke wheels. There was a misconception that the frames were pre-Civil War cotton wagons but in truth they are refuse collection wagons from the late 19th century.
Over the years the themes and subjects of parades have been varied. In some cases they have been academic (Comus was know for it’s esoteric subjects), in others historical; sometimes literature and legend would be raided for ideas; other times it would be comical or political (or a combination of the two). However whatever the theme several floats remain a constant: The Boeuf Gras or Fatted Calf and Rex himself. In the past few years the King’s Jester, the Butterfly King and A Streetcar Named Desire have become perennials.
In 1892 the theme of the Rex Parade was The Symbolism of Colors perhaps reflecting the very Victorian concept of assigning symbolism to everything from flowers to birds to … colours. It may well be that the theme of this parade gave birth, erroneously, to the idea that the three colours of the Mardi Gras flag symbolize Justice (Purple), Power (Gold) and Faith (Green).
As this year’s crowd enjoy a parade celebrating Carnivals Fetes and Feasts let’s step back take up a spot at Charles and Poydras just passed Lee Circle on the traditional route and enjoy 1892’s passing parade.
And once again Mardi Gras comes to an end and it’s time to say “Farewell to Flesh” (carne flesh + levare to remove).
* Carnevale Ambrosiano begins four days later and continues until “sabato grasso” (Fat Saturday.
** In Iceland it is aptly named “Bursting Day” and apparently people over stuff themselves on salted meat and peas???