The History Of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras History. Origin of Mardi Gras Beads.

Mardi Gras history is an interesting story. Though Mardi Gras as we know it originates in Paris, many believe that Mardi Gras' roots predate even the French celebration. Lupercalia was a pastoral festival held around February 15th in Rome to banish evil spirits and bring health and fertility to the city. The Church was having trouble convincing the populous to give up the pagan celebration, so they repurposed the “Carnival” as a celebration before the beginning of Lent.

Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with the French explorer Iberville. Mardi Gras had been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages, where it is a major holiday. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, from where he launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. On March 3 of 1699, Iberville had set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. To honor the celebration going on in France, they christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.

In the early 1700's the history of Mardi Gras became a bit more formal. Louisiana's Governor The Marquis de Vaudreuil stated holding elegant society balls in New Orleans. Eventually the celebration started to spill outside into the streets.

By the early 1800's, the public outdoor celebration of Mardi Gras consisted of masked revelers walking through the streets, or traveling costumed in carriages and on horseback. However, the first documented Mardi Gras “parade” was not until 1837. With identities hidden behind masks, some people behaved so raucously that “masking” in the street was deemed illegal for a time!

Fortunately, Mardi Gras in New Orleans was saved by the formation of the Comus society in 1857. The men organized the carnival and proved that it could be a harmless and merry celebration for the city. Comus was the first of the Mardi Gras “krewes” and established many of the traditions of Mardi Gras.

the Rex organization

As described by, Rex entered the picture in 1872. New Orleans was struggling to recover from the lingering effects of the civil war, and divisions and isolation prevailed. At the same time, many city leaders saw the need to bring some order to the chaotic street parades of Mardi Gras day. The news that Russia's Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff would visit Mardi Gras and New Orleans provided another impetus to add order and brilliance to the day. This portrait shows the Grand Duke as a dashing young man, about the time he made his visit to New Orleans.

The group of young men who founded the Rex Organization hoped not only to entertain the Grand Duke, but also to create a daytime parade that would be attractive and fun for the citizens of the city and their guests. True to the Rex motto, "Pro Bono Publico" —for the public good, they succeeded beyond their hopes. They selected one of their members, Lewis J. Solomon, to be the first Rex, King of Carnival. Before he could begin his reign he had to borrow a crown, scepter, and costume from an actor who happened to be performing in town at the time.
Rex's reign as "King of Carnival" had begun. The Rex Organization, incorporated as "The School of Design," went to work to achieve the twin goals of presenting a grand daytime procession as the highlight of Mardi Gras day, and to encourage visitors to come to New Orleans to enjoy the celebration. In subsequent years, and to this day, Rex has issued his Official Proclamation of Carnival, and invited his subjects to gather in his "Capital City" to celebrate.

Colors of Mardi Gras
The official colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green, and gold, have been used since Rex first appeared. It is not known if there was an intended symbolism to the colors at the beginning. Twenty years later the parade's theme "The Symbolism of Colors" suggested that purple, green, and gold symbolized justice, faith, and power, respectively. The Rex flag diagonally displays these colors, along with a crown in the center.

history of King Cake
Today king cake is synonymous with Mardi Gras. January 6, the Twelfth Night after Christmas, is also the day Mardi Gras season begins. The tradition of king cake dates back to the Middle Ages when it was served at Twelfth Night celebrations, in honor of the Three Wise Men (or kings) who followed the North Star to find the Christ Child.


King cake is made of braided Danish pastry and cinnamon, and it’s topped with Mardi Gras colored icing. Sometimes there is a cream cheese or fruit filling. In every king cake there is a tiny plastic baby hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby in their piece of cake is in charge of buying the next king cake or hosting the next king cake party.

history of mardi gras beads
The exact beginning of the bead throwing tradition is debated.  Many believe it originates in the 1830-40s, with Rex, the Kind of the Carnival, and other high-class aristocrats on parade floats throwing out hand made necklaces and also sugar coated almonds to revelers in the crowd.  It is believed that the "throwing of the beads" was from the festival customs from the English Renaissance era.
Glass beads are thought to have arrived around the 1880's in New Orleans, and some say passed were out by a man dressed up as Santa Claus.  After that first appearance, the beads became an instant hit.  By the year 1900, more than 100,000 tourists traveled to New Orleans for the parade and to witness and be a part of the popular bead tosses.
Instead of being created with glass, most of the strands today, are designed with cheaper materials that may cause less injury such as plastic and aluminum.  Today, beads are often associated with rowdy behavior and used as a way to entice women to flash the crowd. Many long-time Mardi Gras attendees will point out that this mainly happens in the French Quarter and not along the actual parade route, where the fun and true purpose of Mardi Gras continues to prosper.