The tradition of Mardi Gras runs deep in New Orleans. For three weeks each year, the city comes together to celebrate this season of indulgence and excess with a deluge of masquerade balls, black-tie parties and — of course — parades. While Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is observed with colorful fanfare around the world from Venice to Cape Verde to Rio de Janeiro, the atmosphere in New Orleans this time of year offers an entirely unique experience. Purple, green and gold banners line the iconic balconies of the French Quarter, while costume-clad revelers parade down its streets. Massive floats amble down the oak-lined streets of New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods, while children joyfully shout, “Throw Me Something, Mister!”
Sterling silver souvenir toasting cup from the 1954 Mardi Gras Krewe of Proteus
It is little wonder that New Orleans welcomes over one million visitors each Mardi Gras season. Yet, few know the meaning behind the Mardi Gras symbols and colors that mark the occasion. Read on to learn more about Mardi Gras history — and laissez les bon temps rouler!
A (Brief) Mardi Gras History
A true account of Mardi Gras history could fill volumes, as the origin of the celebrations is rooted in antiquity. The festival of Carnival (from the Latin carnelevamen
, meaning “farewell to flesh”) first emerged in Italy and later expanded to France and Spain as a Christian tradition celebrating the Lenten holiday. Those early Spanish and French settlers who arrived in New Orleans in the late 1600s brought with them these traditions, including the customs of street parades and lavish masked balls. Impromptu street parades and parties thus became commonplace during Lent in Louisiana through the early 19th century.
Rhinestone evening belt worn to an early Comus Mardi Gras ball
Disorganized and often disorderly, the revelry grew increasingly disruptive, so much so that the city moved to ban street parades altogether in the 1850s. Luckily, the city instead banded together to bring organization to the celebrations, and the very first Mardi Gras krewe — the Mistick Krewe of Comus — was created in 1856. Named after the son of Bacchus and Circe, Comus began a long-held tradition of naming krewes after figures from mythology
, a tradition that continues to this day.
Flemish Baroque Bronze Bacchus. Circa 1670
The Myth of Endymion Italian Plaque. Circa 1800
Other organizations soon followed, and today there are over 70 krewes in the New Orleans area, with new organizations emerging each year. Rex and Zulu are the oldest krewes still operating, and they are thus heralded as Mardi Gras royalty. Other “super krewes” such as Endymion, Bacchus and Muses can boast upwards of 1,000 members, and each creates spectacular floats that take to the streets during the Mardi Gras season.
Mardi Gras Colors
Purple. Gold. Green. These are the undisputed colors of Mardi Gras. Ask nearly any die-hard Mardi Gras reveler, and they will tell you the meaning behind these hues: purple stands for justice, gold for power and green for faith. While there is little contention surrounding this bit of Mardi Gras symbolism, the story behind the colors’ adoption is far more murky.
Mention of the colors can be found as early as 1872, the same year that the Rex Organization was organized to orchestrate the grandest Mardi Gras celebration that the city had yet seen. Rex, Latin for “King,” was declared the King of Carnival, and the organization then decreed its “official” colors — purple, gold and green — should adorn every balcony along its newly formed parade route. What brought about this sudden organizational effort? The occasion was the arrival of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov, the son of Tsar Alexander II and the very first Russian royal to ever visit the United States. New Orleans was the last stop on his American tour.
Some writers inaccurately claim that purple, gold and green were the colors of the Tsar, and that was the reason they were championed by Rex. Followers of M.S. Rau, however, know that the Tsar’s colors were actually green and red — the colors of the beguiling color-changing Alexandrite gemstone
, which bears the Tsar’s name.
More likely is that the colors were chosen by Rex for their regality. Purple has been associated with royalty since antiquity — the Persian king Cyrus wore a purple tunic as his royal uniform, while some Roman emperors even forbade any non-royal from wearing the hue. Its popularity among kings was primarily due to its exclusivity. Derived from a rare sea snail, the coveted “Tyrian purple” took upwards of 250,000 snails to produce just one ounce of dye, making it extraordinarily rare and prohibitively expensive.
6.21-Carat Color-Change Alexandrite Ring
Green boasts noble associations that similarly extend back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians were known to paint representations of their gods using malachite, a vibrantly hued green stone. Yet, above all, the color green points to prosperity. Beginning the Middle Ages, the color green was often worn by bankers, merchants and other upper-class families. Green is also, more obviously, the color of money in the United States. The hue was chosen by early makers of paper money due to its difficulty to reproduce, thus helping to deter counterfeiters.
Gold has its own connections to wealth as a precious metal, but its inclusion is also a nod to traditional heraldry. Known as the tincture, the traditional palette of colors used in heraldry always included a metal, either gold or silver. The five other heraldic colors included blue, black, red, purple and green — thus, the Mardi Gras trio kept with heraldic tradition.
It was 20 years after the adoption of the three colors that they were given their present-day meaning: purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith. In 1892, the Rex Organization gave their parade the theme "Symbolism of Colors." Floats seven, eight and 12 depicted the colors purple, gold and green, respectively, assigning each the meaning justice, power and faith. After the parade, Rex issued a statement in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that proclaimed these the official meanings of the Mardi Gras colors.
Mardi Gras Symbols
Ruby and diamond fleur-de-lis brooch
Perhaps the only symbol more ubiquitous in New Orleans than the Mardi Gras colors purple, gold and green is the fleur de lis
. It can be found everywhere from flags and architecture to logos and clothing; in 2008, it was even proclaimed the official symbol of the city.
Like Mardi Gras itself, the fleur de lis’ pervasiveness reflects New Orleans’ French roots. The fleur de lis was adopted as a symbol of the French monarchy in the 1100s, and it pervaded royal French iconography until the French Revolution of 1787. Legend tells that in 1682, when the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the Mississippi basin and named it “La Louisiana” after King Louis XIV, he staked a fleur-de-lis flag into the banks of the river. Just a few decades later, in 1718, French settlers established La Nouvelle Orléans — New Orleans — paying homage to the monarchy’s ties to the French city Orléans. They, too, adopted a flag adorned by the fleur de lis to fly above the newly founded city. Thus, the fleur de lis became a symbol of New Orleans, and it is ever-present during the Mardi Gras season.
Likewise, the Mardi Gras mask has become synonymous with the holiday. With roots in ritualistic celebrations and Greco-Roman theatre, masks have been an integral part of Mardi Gras celebrations since at least the 13th century, when the first laws regulating their use emerged in Venice
. Representing freedom from rules and social structures, masks allowed early Venetians to mingle amongst different classes without damaging one’s reputation.
Like other European Mardi Gras traditions, the wearing of masks was eagerly adopted in Louisiana. Masquerade balls flourished in the region while it remained under French rule, but after Louisiana was ceded to the Spanish in 1763 following the French-Indian War, Mardi Gras celebrations and masking were both banned under the new governor’s leadership. Though New Orleans officially became an American city in 1803, it was not until 1823 that the Creole populace persuaded the governor to lift the ban.
The Mardi Gras Act of 1875 made the day a legal holiday in Louisiana and included the lifting of any lingering laws against masks on Mardi Gras day. In fact, it actually became law that float riders were required to wear masks while on the parade route, protecting their identities and adding to the spirit of festivity that surrounded the day. Today, elaborate masks and matching costumes are worn by riders and revelers alike, becoming a pervasive symbol of Mardi Gras throughout the state.
Masquerade by Fortunato Galli. Circa 1883
“A Russian grand duke's Mardi Gras tour.” Tulane.edu. Accessed February 17, 2020. https://news.tulane.edu/news/russian-grand-dukes-mardi-gras-tour
“Carnival has flown the same colors since 1872.” Nola.edu. Accessed February 17, 2020. https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/mardi_gras/article_f1a6025a-2470-50bb-a823-959d62bd54de.html
“How Carnival Got Its Colors.” Myneworleans.com. Accessed February 18, 2020. https://www.myneworleans.com/how-carnival-got-its-colors-2/