“laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Mardi Gras en français or Fat Tuesday in English, it is time to party. It’s the last day for some Christians to eat all the food they like and party before the season of fasting before Lent. In many traditions it isn’t just one day. Mardi Gras, or Carnival season, starts in January after 12th Night or the Epiphany, culminating at midnight on the day before Ash Wednesday. English traditions call the day Shrove Tuesday and for many religious Christians a time for confession. Celebrations vary from city to city and by country but many of the traditions are the same masks, beads, parades and parties. In Mobile, Alabama,the former capital of New France, the Mardi Gras social events start in November with “mystic society” balls on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve with more parades and balls in January and February ending on the traditional Tuesday before Lent. And you thought New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro were the party cities, heh. Many if these balls raise large amounts of money for charity, justifying in a way the “decadence”. In other places with a French heritage, like Louisiana, where the revelry also starts weeks before with parades and parties celebrating the arrival of the “Krewes” or organizations that sponsor various parades, the day is an official holiday. Like anyone in New Orleans is going to the office that day. There’s many traditional foods, too, like pancakes, fruit laden sweet breads and sugary pastries. Any food with lots of fat and eggs. Look out arteries here it comes.
Mardi Gras was introduced to America in colonial days as a sedate religious tradition by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane.
The expedition, led by Iberville, entered the mouth of the Mississippi River on the evening of March 2, 1699, Lundi Gras, not yet knowing it was the river explored and claimed for France by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1683. The party proceeded upstream to a place on the west bank about 60 miles downriver from where New Orleans is today, where a small tributary emptied into the great river, and made camp. This was on March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras day, so in honor of this holiday, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras (French: “Mardi Gras Point”) and called the small tributary Bayou Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found Mobile, Alabama in 1702 as the first capital of French Louisiana. In 1703 French settlers in that city began to celebrate the Mardi Gras tradition. By 1720, Biloxi was made capital of Louisiana. While it had French settlers, Mardi Gras and other customs were celebrated with more fanfare given its new status. In 1723, the capital of French Louisiana was moved to New Orleans, founded in 1718. With the growth of New Orleans as a city and the creolization of different cultures, the varied celebration of Mardi Gras became the event most strongly associated with the city. In more recent times, several U.S. cities without a French Catholic heritage have instituted the celebration of Mardi Gras, which sometimes emerged as grassroots movements.
The Carnival season, or Mardi Gras, kicked on in the city of New Orleans on January 6th, Twelfth Night, with the traditional Twelfth Night Revelers’ Ball, hosted by the krew of the same name, where the queen of Mardi Gras is chosen, a tradition that began in 1870.
Up until this time in Carnival and Mardi Gras history, there had never been a queen of the celebration. In fact, prior to this time, all parades, balls and tableaux were planned and staged by men. Women did not participate in any fashion until after the tableaux when ladies were summoned from the audience to take part in the dancing.
And now the great surprise of the evening was about to be unveiled. The first queen in the history of the New Orleans Carnival was about to be chosen, crowned and put upon a pedestal to be admired. The huge king cake was brought out for all to witness the proceedings. When the cake was prepared, a golden bean had been placed inside. The court fools were to slice generous servings of the cake and pass them to the ladies, who waited patiently. [..]
Selection of a queen at the Twelfth Night Revelers Ball through the use of the king cake is still practiced today. In place of a real cake, a huge artificial cake with little drawers is used. One drawer holds a golden bean and the balance, silver beans. The lady selecting the drawer with the golden bean is crowned queen and those choosing drawers containing silver beans are the maids.
The partying, alas, will end at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. So, Laissez les bon temps rouler!