Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, A Beautiful Evil by Kelly Keaton is being released during Mardi Gras season. This year, it falls on Feb. 21.
Despite being ravaged by hurricanes, Keaton’s reimagined New Orleans, New 2, still celebrates Mardi Gras much like we do now. And because I live in Mobile, Alabama (arguably the home of the original Mardi Gras) it’s a topic dear to me.
History: French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville landed on the Gulf Coast in 1699 and first established what would become Mobile, then moved west to found New Orleans in 1718. Both cities adopted the French holiday of Mardi Gras, forming secret societies that held balls, and later, parades. In the late 1700s, New Orleans folded in the Spanish traditions of Carnival, and by the late 1800s, there were hundreds of “krewes” organizing parades and tossing out “throws.”
In 1872, a group of New Orleans businessmen invented a King of Carnival–Rex–to rule over the events.
American Mardi Gras traditions:
Throws: Throws are trinkets thrown out by riders on the parade floats. It started in the 1870s by revelers celebrating Twelfth Night. The most popular throws are beads, plastic cups and stuffed animals. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a doubloon, an aluminum commemorative coin. Some items are little more than junk, but others are collectors items. Here in Mobile, we’re fond of Moon Pies (because they don’t hurt when you get whacked in the face!).
King Cake: King cakes are round, braided Danish dough. These days, they are covered in gooey frosting and colored sugar (green, purple and yellow). They come in all sorts of flavors and often have a cream cheese filling. They stem from Twelfth Night, when three kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus. That’s why a small porcelain, gold or plastic baby is sometimes inserted into the cake. Whoever gets the piece with the baby is supposed to host the following year’s celebration. Of course, in these lawsuit-happy times, the baby is usually separate from the cake.
Balls: For those of us who have never attended a Mardi Gras ball, they remain a bit of an enigma. They are staged by the individual krewes or secret societies, so only members know what really happens. They generally occur after the krewe’s parade, and are ruled over by a king and queen. They are formal, exclusive invitation-only events that feature lavish decorations, food and entertainment. Women must abide by strict dress codes and men usually either wear their parade costumes or “costume de rigeur,” a tux with tails and white vest and bow tie. Sometimes, they even sport top hats. *giggle*