It's Origins and Customs
The New Orleans version of the festival came to North America from Paris where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages. In 1699, French explorer Iberville and his men explored the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. On a spot 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans, they set up camp on the river's West Bank. Knowing that the day, March 3, was being celebrated as a major holiday in France, they christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.
But Mardi Gras' roots predate the French. The early Church fathers, realizing that it was impossible to divorce their new converts from their pagan customs, decided instead to direct them in Christian channels. Thus Carnival was created as a period of merriment that would serve as a prelude to the penitential season of Lent.
In the late 1700s pre-Lenten balls and fetes were held in New Orleans. Under French rule masked balls flourished, but were later banned by the Spanish governors. The prohibition continued when New Orleans became an American city in 1803, but by 1823, the Creole populace prevailed upon the American governor, and balls were again permitted. Four years later, street masking was legalized.
In the early 19th Century, the public celebration of Mardi Gras consisted mainly of maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. In 1837, a costumed group of revelers walked in the first documented "parade," but the violent behavior of maskers during the next two decades caused an end to Mardi Gras. Six New Orleanians who were former members of Cowbellians, (a group that presented New Year's Eve parades in Mobile since 1831), saved the New Orleans Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization in 1857. The men beautified the celebration and proved that it could be enjoyed in a safe and festive manner. Comus coined the word "krewe," and established several Mardi Gras traditions by forming a secret Carnival society, choosing a mythological namesake, presenting a themed parade with floats and costumed maskers, and staging a tableau ball.
The carnival season begins January 6th (12 days after Christmas) on the Twelfth Night with the first of nearly 100 private masked balls.
Most "outsiders" assume Mardi Gras takes place on a single day. This is true. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. Some time ago, the tradition was to slaughter a fatted calf on the Tuesday before the beginning of the Lenten 40 day fast. Thus, the coining of the phrase "Fat Tuesday."
There is a distinction, however, between Mardi Gras and Carnival. Mardi Gras is a single day that is the climax for the Carnival season. The Carnival season begins on January 6th or Twelfth Night (Kings Night) (12 days after Christmas) and runs until the beginning of Lent- the Easter season (Ash Wednesday). Carnival can run as long as two months, depending on the church calendar.
Celebrating Mardi Gras is a major part of life in Carnival towns: New Orleans, Rio, Sydney, and much of Europe. But even many of its most ardent revelers couldn't tell you of its origins, or why it has become the largest party on Earth. Come, then, travel with us to ancient times, and learn of how this all came to pass....
The historical origins of Mardi Gras are debated, but many of its traditions seem to have clear roots in Celtic rituals -- which, in turn, seem to have even earlier Greek and Egyptian traditions. Much of our knowledge of the Celts is scant and biased. The Druids believed it blasphemous to write down their traditions and beliefs, instead passing along this knowledge through oral teaching. Written material from the time therefore comes primarily from their invaders, a biased source at best. Even so, some information at least can be reconstructed. Here, then, is the Royal Scribe's interpretation of how things came to be.
The ancient Celts -- who, truly, were not a nation as we would recognize it today, but a myriad of tribes with common traditions and beliefs scattered across Europe -- would elect tribal kings. Not everyone could vote, of course; as much as many us uphold Celtic ideals, their views on the role of woman were not as enlightened as today (although a bit better than the Romans and the Catholics who would later destroy them). And although the Celts did not sell slaves as the Romans did, they did capture from other tribes in battle and hold these captives in servitude. Indeed, this was one way of how new women were brought into the tribe: captured in battle, and eventually marrying into the tribe.
But one somewhat modern tradition was present: kings did not assume the throne through divine right, or primogenitor (the right of the monarch's eldest child to succeed to the throne). They were elected from amongst the warrior horse class, elected by fellow warriors and the druids. (Not that not all warriors were created equal: only warriors born to the noble classes were allowed to learn how to ride a horse, and only warriors of the horse class could vote for, or be elected to be the King.)
The role of the King was to serve his tribe, in battle and in peace. Usually this meant leading his tribe in battle until he was killed, or was too old or wounded to continue to lead. The Druids taught the tribe, preserved its traditions, and petitioned the gods to look favorably upon the tribe. Sacrifices were made to appease the gods: usually animals, but sometimes humans as well. Condemned prisoners were the typical human sacrifice. And, in times of great strife, the sacrifice of a willing volunteer would do much to appease the gods. But there was no better sacrifice than that of a King who would willingly let his blood be shed for the betterment of the tribe.
Of course, this did not sit very well with many of the Kings, who would very much like to appease the gods while preserving their own neck. If a King was elected for his prowess in battle, should that skill be lost in ritual sacrifice? If his ability to lead his tribe and negotiate with other tribes was important enough for his tribe to elect him King, why throw it away?
A clever King, probably with the conspiratorial help of the druids, devised a new institution: the King's Substitute.
The King's Substitute, as its name suggests, was someone intended to take the place of the King in the sacrifice. In the early days, the druids would probably find a willing sacrifice -- probably someone of noble, warrior, or druid blood -- to shed their blood in place of the King's. As time went on, a sort of lottery was devised.
The concept is fairly common throughout the world. The Aztecs had their Unblemished Youth selected by the voice of the gods through their priests. The Unblemished Youth would spend an entire year being treated as King: four maidens would serve his every wish, providing him with all the pleasures of gastronomy and flesh they could devise. Some Unblemished Youth may even had some influence in affairs of state; they were, after all, selected by the gods to represent their King. At the end of the year, their blood would be shed in ritual sacrifice to replenish the Earth and promise the daily return of the sun.
History abounds with such turn-about traditions: festivals when great lords would serve feasts to their servants, and other roles were reversed. The "Sadie Hawkins Dance" (as archaic as it may seem in the 1990s), where young women were allowed to ask men to the dance, is a modern variant of this turn-about tradition.
In time, as we have mentioned, chance was used to ensure the will of the gods would supersede the machinations of men. Celts used a variety of these methods, often revolving around food. In one such Beltaine tradition, revelers would each select a small oat cake, one of which had been marked with charcoal on the bottom. In another tradition, a bean was baked into a cake; the gods would guide the hand of their chosen one to the piece with the bean.
Not all of the Substitutions ended in sacrifice. As the Celts moved away from human sacrifice, the tradition of the King's Substitute remained. The selected King would continue to be wined, womened, and worshipped for a period usually lasting twelve days.
Appropriation by the Christians
In time, the Romans took over Celtic lands, and the Christians took over the Romans. The Romans had tried, unsuccessfully, to control the Celts by killing the druids and imposing Roman values and traditions. The Christians succeeded where the Romans failed because they absorbed the Celts and reinvented Celtic traditions and beliefs as their own.
As an example: the Celts had tales of the Tuatha Deacute; Danann -- the people of the goddess Danu, the divine race, gods of Irish legend. They believed that the Tuatha Deacute; were one of three groups scattered after the defeat of the Nemedians. They fled to the northern islands of Greece, where they learned the arts of magic and druidism before returning to Ireland.
But if the goddess Danu (also known as Docirc;n to the Brythionic Celts, and as Anu, the goddess of plenty) was the mother of the gods, how could she be incorporated into the very patriarchal Christian beliefs? Christian priests had already discovered that they won more converts by incorporating others' beliefs into their own rather than attempting to destroy them. They consequently made Danu, or Anu, a sainte: Sainte Anne, the mother of the mother of God -- that is, the mother of the Virgin Mary.
Many other rituals and Celtic holidays were also incorporated into Christianity. The birth of Jesus was moved from late summer or early fall, which historians believe to be its actual date, to mid-winter, coinciding with Celtic winter solstice traditions. Twelfth Night became the night the three wise men visited the Baby Jesus, twelve nights after his birth. It is this date -- the Feast of Epiphany, January 6, twelve days after Christmas -- that the official Mardi Gras season begins. Easter falls near the spring equinox, between the Celtic holy days of Imbolc (February 1) and Beltaine (May 1). And many Celtic traditions such as the fertility symbol hunt -- hunting for rabbits, eggs, and similar symbols of fertility -- have been incorporated into more modern Easter traditions.
The Celtic and more ancient traditions of sacrifice play an extremely prominent role in Christian belief as well; the entire Christian faith revolves around the idea that the Son of God sacrificed himself for the sins of man. And Jesus himself was the Sacred Substitute not only for mankind, but for his father, the King of Heaven.
Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," was a celebration of life's excesses before the austere self-sacrifices of the Christian season of Lent. It received its name from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, and includes a much more proscribed lifestyle for practicing Catholics: no meat on Fridays (formerly a year-round proscription until it was relaxed by Vatican II in the 1960s), and the requirement to sacrifice something dear, such as chocolate, during the forty days of Lent. Mardi Gras, which falls the day before Lent begins, was the final hurrah; excesses frowned upon at any other time of the year were viewed with a blind eye.
Many Celtic traditions, such as the selection of the substitute King, have been incorporated into modern Mardi Gras traditions. And when the predominantly Catholic French settled Louisiana and New Orleans, they brought these traditions with them.
In European countries, the coming of the wisemen bearing gifts to the Christ Child is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. The celebration, called Epiphany, Little Christmas on the Twelfth Night, is a time of exchanging gifts and feasting. All over the world people gather for the festive Twelfth Night celebrations. One of the most popular customs is still the baking of a special cake in honor of the three kings... ;A King's Cake.; Tradition has now evolved through time to obligate the person who receives the baby (inside every King Cake) to continue the festivities by hosting another king cake party.
King Cakes were originally a simple ring of dough with little decoration. We have developed our own special recipe as a signature item to become ;The King; of King Cakes. The King Cake is made with a rich Danish dough, baked and covered with a poured sugar topping and decorated with the traditional Mardi Gras-colored sugars (also available with flavored fillings). The end result is a delicious and festive cake in traditional Rex colors: Purple, representing justice; Green representing faith; Gold representing Power. Hundreds of thousands of King Cakes are consumed at parties every year, making the King Cake another fine Louisiana tradition. In fact, a Mardi Gras party wouldn't be a Mardi Gras party without a King Cake.