Popular party supplies this time of year consist of beaded necklaces, colorful masks, and numerous items colored green, gold, and purple. Bakeries sell King Cakes, which takes on many forms from angel food to cinnamon roll, but is usually a frosted yeast dough cake with colorful sugared drizzle. These things are symbolic this time year, the Christian season of Epiphany, prior to the beginning of Lent. Lent is the Christian season leading to Easter. How are the beads, decorations, cakes, parades, and celebrations connected to Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras is on Tuesday March 5th, 2019. Mardi Gras known as “Fat Tuesday” is the day before Ash Wednesday (start of Lent). The word "Mardi Gras" means "Fat Tuesday" in the French language. Celebration. Mardi Gras originated with the Roman Carnival celebrations that took place in mid-February and celebrated the end of winter. The celebration season extends from the Twelfth Night after Christmas to the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Christian leaders sought to incorporate and adapt existing traditions with Christian beliefs, thinking it would be easier than trying to abolish them completely, so they continued the Carnival season. Mardi Gras is celebrated as a Christian tradition world-wide, important in the Anglican and Catholic nations. Mardi Gras celebrations have a carnival like atmosphere where people dance, have parades, wear masks and costumes and indulge in feasting and over indulgence.
Lent for the year 2019 starts on Wednesday, March 6th and ends on Saturday, April 20th. Lent is a Christian annual period that starts on Ash Wednesday lasting for 40 days representing the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. This 40 day period for Christians is a time to reflect, fast, and give penance in preparation for the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Christians during this period (40 days) will refrain from earthly pleasures to more purify their spirit. Many will also fast and attend church services throughout this period of sacred Christian days. Christians do not fast on Sundays so Lent or "Lenten Fast" is only 40 days because the Sunday's during Lent are not fasting days.
The tradition colors of purple, gold, and green are attributed to the visit from the Russian Duke Alexis Romanoff. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff's family colors of purple, green and gold as Carnival's official colors. Purple stands for justice; gold for power; and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival's improbable anthem, "If Ever I Cease to Love," was cemented, due in part to the Duke's fondness for the tune.
The Mardi Gras parades can be traced back to the 1830s. According to the website mardigrasneworleans.com, the parades began with street processions of masked revelers on horseback or in carriages. The masks were used to conceal the identity of the members of each of the secret societies or “krew.” Some of the oldest New Orleans krewes are the Twelfth Night Revelers, Zulu, Comus and Rex.
In 1872 a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade. Today, they consists of elaborate floats featuring costumed characters.
The beaded necklaces are a common party favor and decoration this time of year. The beads are commonly thrown from the parade floats. Brendan Koerner in his article, "Where Do Mardi Gras Beads Come From?" explains that the custom of pitching souvenirs, or "throws," to onlookers during parades might come from two sources. In Pagan rituals celebrating the end of winter, peasants threw milled grain into fields as an offering of gratitude to deities for helping them survive the cold season. Carnival festivals in Renaissance Europe involved throwing various objects. Since the 1870s, many objects have been tossed from floats, including the collectible aluminum doubloons, plastic cups, candy and Frisbees. But in the 1880s, Rex krewe began throwing inexpensive glass beads on strings to parade goers. The beads were an instant hit and were soon adopted by all krewes to throw in their parades. The first beads were all purple, green, and gold, but today you can find them in all colors and featuring almost anything you can imagine: sports teams, food, flowers, rainbows, animals, smiley faces. Some beads even have flashing lights. Mardi Gras is a big business for New Orleans, and krewe members each spend $800 to $2,000 on throws every year.
The King Cake is an oval-shaped braided cake similar to a coffee cake which has cinnamon within the braids and is decorated with icing and sugar the colors of gold (God’s power), green (faith in Christ), and purple (Justice of God) – and contains a tiny plastic baby symbolic of the Baby Jesus usually baked within but sometimes placed within the cake after it has been baked. According to kindcakes.com, religious tradition is bound to the King Cake. Thus, it is not surprising that the origin of the modern King Cake can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when popular devotion during Christmas not only centered on Jesus Christ, but, also included an interest in the “Three Wise Men,” or “kings,” who had followed a star leading them to pay homage to the Christ Child. The “Epiphany,” a Christian festival held on January 6th honors the “Three Wise Men” for having sought the worlds’ Savior. Whoever receives the baby in their slice of cake is considered “king for the day,” or has to bring the cake the next day, or is responsible for throwing the next years Mardi Gras party.
This article contains a very small portion of the history of Mardi Gras, the celebrations and traditions. New Orleans, Louisiana has a rich history tracing back over 400 years to France, deeply rooted in Christianity and the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.