Mardi Gras in New Orleans isn’t just a reason for locals and tourists alike to party in the streets. The carnival season is surrounded by mystery, secrets and traditions that go back hundreds of years. From the colors of the costumes, to the riders on the floats to King Cake, everything that takes place during Mardi Gras season happens for a reason.
10. Krewes and Their Royalty
A Krewe is the word for an organization that creates the balls and parades during Mardi Gras. Each Krewe has several members and a captain. Krewes are practically a secret society in New Orleans. Throughout the year, the Krewe builds floats and holds meetings in secret, on the day of their parade they ride as masked riders. Every Krewe holds their own parade leading up to Mardi Gras, while Zulu and Rex are the two large Krewes to ride on Mardi Gras day. The Krewes date back to the 1800s when Rex first started rolling through the street of New Orleans. There are now dozens of Krewes. Each Krewe has its own style, such as The Muses- an all female Krewe or Bacchus- a Krewe famous for its “super floats” and celebrity riders. The larger Krewes designate a royal party each year. The royal party has a queen and a king who preside over the parade in their own floats.
9. The Mardi Gras Colors – Purple, Green and Gold
The purple, green and gold seen everywhere during carnival season can be attributed to Rex, the original daytime Mardi Gras krewe. In 1872, members of Rex took inspiration from a visit by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff to New Orleans. The result was the purple, green and gold, the official colors of Rex and soon Mardi Gras itself. The colors themselves have symbolic meaning. Purple stands for justice, green for faith and gold for power. Today, the Mardi Gras colors are seen on everything from costumes, to beads to throws.
8. Beads and Throws
The tradition of throwing beads and small trinkets from the parade floats dates back almost as long as the parades themselves. Originally, the beaded necklaces were made from glass, but the Krewes switched to plastic in the mid 1900s. Throws started in the 1920s when Rex and a few other Krewes started throwing small trinkets. Today, you can catch almost anything from a masked rider- stuffed animals, plastic cups, small toys and even bags to hold all your goodies.
Doubloons predate Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. Doubloons were actually the first type of coins minted in America and go back as far as the early 1700s. The doubloons we think of now- the two sided coins thrown from the parade floats- started in 1960 with Rex. H Alvin Sharpe created the first doubloons. These doubloons had the Krewe’s name, emblem and founding date on one side and the current year and theme of the parade on the other side. Soon every Krewe was tossing their own doubloons and now they’re so popular people are willing to get their hands trampled just to get one.
6. The Golden Nugget
The coconuts thrown by Zulu, also known as Golden Nuggets might be the most sought after throw in any Mardi Gras parade. Today, the coconuts are drained and hand painted either in gold or black and white, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900’s, Zulu threw coconuts in their natural state from the floats as a cheap alternative to the more expensive glass beads. In the 1920s, a local painter started painting the coconuts. In 1988, the City of New Orleans banned Zulu riders from throwing the coconuts from the floats and demanded the throws be handed to the crowds, making them even harder to catch and all the more valuable to spectators.
5. King Cake
King Cakes appeared on the scene after Rex adopted the purple, green and gold for their Mardi Gras colors. Traditionally, a King Cake is an oval shaped coffee cake, braided and covered in icing and purple, green and gold sugar. Modern King Cakes also come stuffed with cream cheese, pecans or a variety of fruit flavors. For many years King Cakes came with a small plastic baby inside. Whoever got the baby in was tasked with buying the next King Cake. Today, most bakeries place the baby on top of the cake, rather than risk their customers choking. King Cake season starts with carnival season. Thousands of King Cakes are ordered in bakeries all across Louisiana.
4. Masked Riders
The masked riders passing by on the floats gives the parades a mysterious, if not slightly ominous, air. Every Krewe member, except for members of the royal party and celebrities, dons a mask for their parades. This tradition isn’t exactly a tradition. It actually dates back to a law passed by the city of New Orleans that stated any float rider was to wear a face mask during a parade. Each Krewe has their own masking tradition. Rex members wear long cloth masks in purple, green and gold while Zulu riders choose to paint their faces.
3. Mardi Gras Balls
Each Krewe hosts an elaborate formal ball during the carnival season. It is at these balls where the King and Queen of the Krewe are first introduced. The balls date back to the 1800s. Even then, the Mardi Gras balls were such an important affair that Krewes had the invitations die cast in Paris and sent to New Orleans. Today, some Krewes still hold private invitation only balls, while others have started allowing anyone to purchase tickets.
2. The Flambeaux
The Flambeaux date back to the 1800s when New Orleans did not have electric street lights to shine down on the night parades. Traditionally, The Flambeaux were slaves or free people of color who walked in front of the floats holding large torches. The Flambeaux put on their own show in front of the riders, dancing and doing tricks with the torches. Today, a few Krewes still roll out at night with the Flambeaux leading the way.
1. Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras Indians are the Mardi Gras most people don’t see. Modern Day Indians came from a time when African Americans felt left out of the traditional Mardi Gras krewes and parades. Residents from wards around New Orleans formed their own sort of Krewe and named them after their streets or wards. The Indians created elaborate costumes and names themselves after Native Americans- as tribute to the Native American tribes’ role in freeing the slaves. They designated someone to be the Spy, the Flag boy and the Big Chief and these tribes led processions through the streets. In the past, Mardi Gras Indians were violent, but today most tribes simply act out a scene when passing other tribes. Indians do not follow any schedule or parade route and a rare thing to see on Mardi Gras.
by Angela Colley