After weeks of Carnival celebration and preparation, tomorrow is Mardi Gras Day! Don’t confuse Carnival and Mardi Gras; Carnival refers to the period of feasting and fun that begins on Jan. 6, The Feast of the Epiphany. Mardi Gras refers to Fat Tuesday, the final day of revelry before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins.
Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday” in French, has its origins in medieval Europe. What became a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875 was once a Christian holiday with roots in ancient Rome. Instead of outright abolishing certain pagan traditions, religious leaders decided to incorporate them into the new faith.
What became known as the Carnival season was a kick-off to Lent, a sort of last hurrah before 40 days of penance sandwiched between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Eventually, the celebration spread from Rome across Europe to the colonies of the New World. Since its early days in New Orleans in the early 18th century, Mardi Gras has grown to colossal proportions and includes several familiar traditions, like bead throwing, mask wearing and coconut painting, that are still widely practiced today.
Two of the last, and most notable, parades roll tomorrow: Zulu and Rex. Zulu rolls bright and early, starting at Jackson Avenue at 8:00 am. Zulu is well known among parade goers for its unique and coveted hand-painted coconut throws. In the early 1900s, other parading organizations threw fancy handmade glass necklaces that were too expensive for the working men of Zulu. Still wanting to give a special prize to lucky parade-goers, the men decided to purchase coconuts from the French Market because they were different and inexpensive. Painted and adorned coconuts became popular with the club starting in the late 1940s and still remain one of the most coveted throws of the parade season. Note: Zulu riders cannot throw coconuts, so it is best to make eye-contact and get as close as you can to the rider for a hand-off.
Rex rolls immediately after and there you can find the King of Carnival! Each year, one member of the Rex Organization is chosen to be the monarch of the organization; King Rex. The identity of Rex is made public in the days before Fat Tuesday. Rex is always a prominent person in the city, one who is usually involved in several philanthropic and civic causes. Being chosen Rex is one of the highest civic honors a person can receive in New Orleans.
The first Rex reign was attended by a Russian nobleman in search of love. His favorite song was played to honor his presence. From that day forth, this song, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” became the royal anthem of Mardi Gras. Still today, this poetic but fun-lovingly song expresses the true spirit of New Orleans, an unique, upbeat city that is filled with love and happiness no matter what’s going on locally or in the world.