History In The Headlines

From King Cake to Zulu Coconuts: The History of 6 Mardi Gras Traditions

By Sarah Pruitt
Though Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) celebrations are traditionally dated to medieval Europe, their roots are believed to go all the way back to ancient pagan festivals such as Saturnalia or Lupercalia. Today, the most famous Mardi Gras celebrations are held in New Orleans, Louisiana, which traces its own heritage to campfire revelries held by French explorers back in 1699. From the first “krewes” to the King of Carnival, join us as we explore six of the most popular New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions.

mardigras1. Krewes
Within two decades after the French explorer Bienville LeMoyne founded New Orleans in 1718, the city’s annual celebrations of Carnival had become an annual event, complete with masked balls and other festivities. Parades commemorating Mardi Gras (the last day of Carnival and the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent) officially began in 1838. By 1857, however, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations had become so marred by drunkenness and violence that city officials were about to do away with them. Instead, several members of a group known as the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, which had held a parade annually on New Year’s Eve since the 1830s, stepped forward. They proposed forming a new private club that would stage its own Mardi Gras parade as an orderly alternative to the chaos that currently existed. They called their new organization the Mystick Krewe of Comus (the Greek god of revelry). Today, more than 70 krewes parade through New Orleans on Mardi Gras, after celebrating the two weeks of Carnival with invitation-only balls and supper dances.

2. Rex, King of Carnival
Among the most famous krewes is the Krewe of Rex, founded in 1872. That year, the Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovitch, brother to the heir apparent to the Russian throne, accepted an invitation to attend Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. Prominent city businessmen organized the visit as a way of attracting tourism and business to the city after the Civil War. Forming a new krewe of prominent citizens, they designated the krewe’s leader for the year as Rex (Latin for king). Officially called the School of Design, the krewe is more commonly known as the Krewe of Rex. Every year since, a prominent person has been chosen to be Rex, that year’s King of Carnival (the Grand Duke was the first one) and given the symbolic key to the city by the mayor.

3. Bead throwing
The true meaning of the famous Mardi Gras beads begins with their traditional colors, which we also owe to the Russian Grand Duke Alexis. During his visit in 1872, the newly founded Krewe of Rex chose the colors of the duke’s royal house for the beads that krewe members would throw from their parade float into the crowds of Mardi Gras revelers. Later, they assigned meaning to each color: Purple stood for justice, green for faith and gold for power. The idea was to toss the beads to those in the crowd who exhibited these traits; the people who caught them were said to get good luck for the coming year. Though the beads were originally glass, nowadays they’re made of plastic, and are one of the most popular Mardi Gras traditions.

4. Zulu coconuts
Also among the most coveted of Mardi Gras parade “throws” are Zulu coconuts, the round, painted, glittery orbs thrown out by members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. One of the oldest traditionally African-American krewes, Zulu held its first parade in 1909. The very next year, as the historical record shows, they began tossing coconuts to members of the crowd. Originally, the coconuts were left in their natural brown, hairy state, but a tradition soon began of painting them and decorating them with glitter. Nowadays, Zulu coconuts are handed into the crowd rather than thrown, to avoid injuries (and lawsuits).

5. Flambeaux
The blazing torches lighting the way for parade-goers during nighttime Mardi Gras festivities are called flambeaux (French for torch), and they date back to a custom established by the original Mardi Gras krewe, Comus. In the mid-19th century, the torches were a necessity due to the lack of sufficient street lighting. The original flambeaux carriers were slaves and free men of color, and their torches were probably made with shredded rope soaked in pitch and set ablaze. Crowds lining the parade route would toss coins to the flambeaux carriers, a tradition that still continues today. Over the years, however, Mardi Gras flambeaux has evolved into a kind of performance art, as the robe-wearing carriers twirl and dance with their torches, now much lighter and fueled by butane or kerosene.

6. King cake
The story behind one of Mardi Gras’ most popular foods dates back to the Middle Ages. That’s when people began celebrating the tradition of the Three Kings, who brought gifts to the baby Jesus on Twelfth Night (the end of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany). Along with giving special gifts to children, the custom arose to eat a special kind of cake for the occasion. King cakes are now consumed throughout the season, beginning on Twelfth Night (January 6) and ending on Mardi Gras. Originally just a simple ring of dough, the king cake took different forms over the years; today, the most popular form is a braided Danish pastry laced with cinnamon and iced in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. According to a tradition launched in the 1940s by Donald Entringer, who owned one of New Orleans’ largest commercial bakeries, a tiny baby figurine (meant to represent Jesus) was baked into each king cake. The baby is usually made of plastic, but in past years was sometimes porcelain or even gold. According to custom, whoever gets the baby in his or her slice must buy the next cake or host the next party. As with Zulu coconuts, however, fear of lawsuits has led to changes in the king cake tradition: Many bakeries have recently stopped baking baby figurines into their cakes, instead choosing to package them separately for customers to insert themselves.

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Categories: Mardi Gras, New Orleans