Mardi Gras is a massive family holiday which occurs annually in New Orleans, and includes music, floats and parades. Normally celebrated on Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of the period of Lent (a time of sacrifice), the tradition began on February 24, 1857 by the Krewe of Comus. A krewe is a company that organises a parade or ball for a carnival event. The first Mardi Gras was started with a parade, and a feast taking place after, for the guests.
Mardi Gras celebrations are shrouded in purple, green and gold. These colours were chosen by Rex, the king of Mardi Gras, in 1872 in honour of the Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff who was visiting New Orleans at the time. Each colour has been assigned a meaning, purple – justice, green – faith and gold – power. In addition to adorning themselves in the royal colours, revellers also wear costumes and masks to increase the party’s intrigue.
Krewe members on the floats are legally required to don masks during the parades. This adornment traditionally began because many of the attendees wanted to remain anonymous, during their revelling, in order to escape class restrictions which would limit their fun and freedom. Social etiquette was very important at the time and masked party goers would be able to mix and mingle without the fear of subsequent social judgement.
Leading the floats in the parade are torch bearers, who wave and twirl their fire sticks, while they dance their way through the streets. The torch bearers were originally slaves or free men of colour, who were tipped generously by the crowd because of their extravagance with the flambeaux (flaming torches). Even though the sight of the torches is amazing to behold, their original inclusion was more practical than flamboyant, as they were needed to provide light for folk to see the beautiful floats as well as warmth for those in the streets on cold nights.
While the flames are guiding the way, most onlookers are anticipating the pleasures that follow them on the floats. Members of each krewe throw gifts to the crowd as they go past. This tradition was started in the 1870s and is still one of the most highly anticipated parts of the parade. Gifts include beads, cups, stuffed animals and doubloons, which are medallions with the krewe’s emblem on one side and the Mardi Gras theme on the other. To receive a doubloon is very rare and collectors are thrilled at the retrieval of one of these.
Each krewe has a king and a queen who organise the Mardi Gras balls, which still close the celebrations. Their identities are withheld until the night of the balls, which are mostly private events where attendance is normally by invitation only. After these elaborate affairs the crowds disperse home contentedly exhausted, in order to prepare for the period of sacrifice that begins the next day.