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The History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is believed to have started from a celtic tradition. The kings were elected, by the people, to lead them into battle and protect and ensure saftey during peace. The druids would use sacrifice to the gods in order to ensure prosperity for their people. Animals were often sacrifices. Sometimes human prisoners were the sacrifice, but in times of great trouble, the greatest of all these sacrifices would be the king, himself. Willingly giving up his life to ensure his peoples. Of course,, who wants to be a sacrifice, especially when you have all the glory? So the Kings and the druids came up with a brilliant plan. The Kings Substitute. In the early days, the sacrifice was a willing substitute, it later became a lottery of sorts. .He would be treated like a king for a period of time, and then sacrificed to the gods.

Celts used a variety of methods, often revolving around food. In one such 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.

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.

Many rituals and Celtic holidays were 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. (cant you see why we Louisianians love it so much :o) )

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.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The Carnival season begins on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, and lasts until Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday and the onset of Lent. By the 1850s, it was as if there were two separate Mardi Gras celebrations: the elegant balls of high society, and the wild, riotous reveling in the streets by the not-so-elite.

In 1857, the secret Mystick Krewe of Comus was founded by a group of men who knew that Mardi Gras could only be preserved with careful planning, organization, and management of the celebrations. Comus planned the first parade, lighting the procession with flambeaux, or torches.

The same year, Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia planned to come to New Orleans for Carnival. The Krewe of Rex formed principly to entertain the Duke. Since America did not have royalty to properly greet visiting nobles, Rex created a "king for the day." The Celtic tradition of a Substitute King had been revived.

Dozens of Krewes have been created since Comus and Rex, all with their own traditions -- their own parades, their balls, their Kings and Queens. And although some revelers begin donning masks as early as the Friday before Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday is still the traditional day for masks, disguises, and formal-wear in the City that Care Forgot.

But it must be remembered that although costumes are worn for both, Mardi Gras is not Halloween. Gore and mayhem may work for All Hallow's Eve, but for Mardi Gras, glamour is de rigour. Feathers, beads, glitter, spangles -- all work well on Mardi Gras. Tuxedoes, ball gowns, and boas work. Fake blood and Freddie Krueger gloves do not.

Rituals and traditions have also evolved with non-krewe members as well. Those in the heart of Carnival often begin their celebrating on January 6, and don't let up until Ash Wednesday -- for remember, Mardi Gras is the peak of the Carnival Season, but it is only one day. New Orleans has officially established Lundi Gras on the Monday before Fat Tuesday because no one can get any work done as of the Friday before anyway.

Many locals begin with a party on January 6 that includes a King Cake, a cake baked in the shape of a large doughnut, covered with icing and colored sugar of green, gold, and purple, the traditional Mardi Gras colors. Purple represents justice, green representing faith, and gold representing power. Inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby, meant to represent the Baby Jesus. Whoever gets the piece with the baby is crowned King or Queen ... and is expected to throw a party on the following weekend. Parties with King Cake continue each weekend until Mardi Gras itself finally arrives.

Reveling in the streets occurs the entire weekend before Mardi Gras, but the biggest day by far is Mardi Gras itself. Many revelers provide as big a show as the krewes themselves. "Show us your tits!" is a popular cry in the more riské French Quarter!