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History, Mystery and Mardi Gras

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Mardi Gras is one of my favorite holidays! We prepare for it all year by picking themes, planning parties, preparing costumes, designing floats, deciding what to give up for Lent, and hunting down the BEST vendors I can find for our annual event. However, as popular as Mardi Gras has become, there are still many myths and misconceptions. Yes, gettin' your party on, dressing crazy, and summoning the alter-ego you would never introduce to memaw is fun, but it is MUCH more than that. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is riddled with history, celebration, food, mystery, religion and culture!  The earliest origins of the tradition can be traced all the way back to medieval Europe where the tradition of "Boef Gras", or fatted calf, began and eventually made it's way into the colonies. However, there is a bit of controversy surrounding the "when and where" of the first Mardi Gras. In one story, a French explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur Bienville and his men arrived sixty miles south of New Orleans and declared it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" when they realized it was the eve of Fat Tuesday back home in France. In 1702 Bienville declared the establishment of "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" and a year later, in 1703, Fort Louis celebrated the first Mardi Gras in the United States. That settlement is now called Mobile. The other tall-tale of Mardi Gras is it was noting more than a group of college students who had a little too much spirit, dressed up in masks and costumes, and tormented the streets of New Orleans.  In 1704 Mobile created a secret society called Masque de la Mobile. This is basically how the "Krewe" was created. In 1710 the "Boef Gras Society" was born. If there are any traditions we laid to rest, I am glad it was this one. Their parade was lead by the decapitated head of a bull, as a form of sacrifice, pushed on wheels by a team of sixteen men! Could you imagine doing that in today's world? There would be mass chaos with animal rights activists and who knows what else! Evolving from that tradition, thankfully, the procession was later lead by an actual bull, draped in white, symbolizing the Lenton season approaching. In lack of better words, this was the "march to Fat Tuesday" and what we know today as the Mardi Gras parade. 

Can you believe there was a time when masquerade balls and public disguises were banned in New Orleans? Crazy, huh? The celebration was not always a happy and exciting one. Polar opposite of the notorious New Orleans Mardi Gras we hear about today. Marquis de Vaudreuil, Louisianna's Governor in the 1740's, established elegant balls and masquerades in honor of the celebration. Hearing of these lavish festivities, New Orleans quickly used their parties as a model for their own. The banning did not last long and by the late 1830s New Orleans had created a carnival atmosphere for their street processions and commenced their first parade in 1837. The magic was beyond compare! Fancy carriages, elaborate masks, and horseback riders only made up a small part of the parade. Flambeaux, or gaslight torches, were used to light up the excitement for the Krewe members, participants, onlookers! In 1856, a group of six men from Mobile created the Mistick Krewe of Comus. Comus brought even more mystery to the vibrant celebration of New Orleans with elaborate and extravagant tableaux cars, or floats, and their own version of masquerade balls. During those times, members of the Krewe chose anonymity and were made up of white men. Women and African Americans had to form their own krewes and thankfully, during their reign, Comus managed to reverse the negativity that had built up around the holiday and declared New Orleans the Mardi Gras capital of the world. They encouraged everyone, no matter who they were, to have a fabulous time! In 1870 a second krewe, The Twelfth Knight Revelers, was formed bringing with them the tradition of "throwing" during the parade.

It didn't take long for the magic of Mardi Gras to hit the newspapers and they began printing pictures of the beautifully detailed paper mache floats. No one wanted to miss seeing the outrageous costumes, crazy masks, and revelers parading in the streets. In 1872, the "King of Carnival" was brought to life by a group of businessmen. This was the "Krewe of Rex". In honor of the visiting Grand Duke of Russia, Alexis Romanov, the businessmen declared the Romanov family colors as the official carnival colors we are all accustomed to today. Purple represents Justice, Gold means Power, Green stands for Faith.That next year, floats were being made in New Orleans instead of France and in 1875 Governor Henry Warmoth blessed his signature upon the "Mardi Gras Act" making Fat Tuesday a legal Holiday in Louisiana and officially calling it "The Greatest Show on Earth!" I think we can all agree it is living up to its name. Another interesting and overlooked Mardi Gras fact is it follows the lunar calendar the Catholic Church uses to determine the date of Easter. This is where the religious aspect of the holiday comes into play. It falls between February third and March ninth and defines the Lenten season which begins on ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday. This is when we have to figure out what we are going to sacrifice for forty days. You may be curious as to why we participate in this ritual. Well, long ago, when someone wanted to convert to Catholicism, they had to go through a difficult and enduring purification process before their Easter baptism. Converting was no easy feat. It had to be earned. After the process was practiced for a while, the rest of the church agreed to join them as a way to renew and acknowledge their love and commitment to Christ. Lent, today, is a way to refocus our faith, hearts, minds and recommit to the Holy Trinity. Think of it as your Godly New Years resolution. Ultimately, we are fasting and depriving ourselves to cleans our bodies of the negative and promote positivity in our daily lives. My go-to sacrificial lamb is usually some form of carbohydrate because the point is for it to be very difficult to give up, and I do love Olive Garden, frozen pizzas, and we never go to the store without buying every new flavor of Lays available. Did you know the tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras in Jefferson Tx began in the 1800s? My whole life I assumed it began the year I was born,1989. I didn't realize it went back that far until writing this article. A group of Jeffersonians gathered together and hosted the first Queen Mab Ball annually until the Corps of Engineers blasted a huge log jam around 1873. After that, Jefferson's population slowly dwindled. Despite the unfortunate economic downfall, the small town began thriving again in the late 1900s. However, there were still a few months where tourism was slow. In 1989, our local Krewe, the Krewe of Hebe, was born with the goal of hosting their annual Mardi Gras celebration and to become a social tool to boost tourism and help the Marion County economy thrive. They had hopes of bringing business to our restaurants, shops, places of lodging, and I can say first hand they have accomplished that goal.

Twenty-eight years later, the Krewe of Hebe continues to host the annual carnival with parties all year, parades, delicious carny food, rides, face painting and vendors for the whole family to enjoy. On average we have anywhere from twenty to fourty thousand tourists visit our historic little town. What makes our Mardi Gras special is we have three different parades to enjoy. Our "Do-Dah" parade, or as I like to call it, the "Glow in the Dark" parade has to be my favorite. We kick off the weekend Friday night lining up at the park with golf carts and revelers on foot all decked out in lights, glowing jewelry, and anything that blinks! Then we parade down to the big tent where we have our bands playing for the weekend. Saturday, of course, is our Grand Parade with our lavish floats, school groups, royalty, Shriners, and everything in between and it is only the beginning of our Saturday festivities. Our restaurants have specials and bands, a variety of gift shops booming with business and loads of new merchandise, nearly one hundred food and craft vendors located around town you won't want to miss, and bands we have playing all day and night in the beer garden. After all the fun and festivities on Saturday, we host a family day on Sunday for those who did not want to bring their kids into town the day before. Our children's parade is on Sunday and all children are invited to ride on their own floats, throw beads, and follow up with activities at the park including a dog parade! I am very proud of our Krewe. It is more than just Mardi Gras for us. We are dedicated, civic servants who have grown to take on much more than just Mardi Gras. This year will be my fourth year over the vendor booths and I plan on making it the BEST year yet!

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