Everybody knows that Mardi Gras is a time to frolic and have fun, to cut loose — to throw down, as they say in the Big Easy. But what about the trappings and traditions — the masks, beads, king cake and mock royalty; the ubiquitous purple, green and gold? Aren’t these mere trivialities — just so much froufrou — when the real reason for the season is to let pleasure rule?
Yes and no. Mardi Gras is an amalgamation of crazy habits and rituals that occur within a framework of established conventions. As a point of departure for celebrating — a collection of reference points, really — that framework is infinitely flexible, allowing for plenty of freedom to improvise.
Mardi Gras customs include balls and parties; thematic parades with floats and marching bands; walking-club processions; acquiring beads and other baubles tossed from floats or balconies; and general revelry in the streets. All of which are augmented in various ways by pretend royalty, costuming/fancy dressing, king cake; special decorations and props; beads and other baubles handed out or tossed from floats or balconies; plus music, drinking and dancing. Collectively, these elements comprise a cultural “tool kit” or repertoire whereby different themes and symbols are continuously cobbled together, recycled and reinterpreted through a wide variety of art forms and aesthetic motifs.
Mardi Gras, in short, is a highly dynamic phenomenon, in which traditions are constantly being reinterpreted and invented anew. There is no one way to celebrate Mardi Gras.
So, yes, anyone can buy some provisions and throw a “Mardi Gras party.” But doing so without bonding in some way to the framework, i.e., the Mardi Gras tradition, is akin to observing Thanksgiving without reference to Pilgrims and turkeys or Easter without reference to Jesus and bunny eggs.
Given some of the prevalent images of Mardi Gras in the popular consciousness — masked riders tossing trinkets from glitzy parade floats, women leaning over French Quarter balconies to flash flesh as amateur paparazzi and drunken college boys hoot and jeer — it’s little wonder why the festival’s connection to Judeo-Christian tradition may seem somewhat tenuous, at best. Suffice is to say, the Dionysian spirit of pre-Christian revels involving festive release, character change and disguise, and the suspension of the usual social order survived in Carnival, which came to be more or less accepted by Church fathers as a necessary period of foolishness and folly before the atonement and abstinence of Lent. Because the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, was one of feasting, it came to be known as Fat Tuesday or, as the French would say, Mardi Gras.
Is there a difference between Carnival and Mardi Gras? Strictly speaking, yes — although the terms are often used interchangeably. Carnival is the season of merriment that begins on feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) — it’s the twelfth day of Christmas, the day the gift-bearing wise men visited the Christ child — and culminates on Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is supposed to represent a farewell to the fat, or flesh, as traditionally symbolized by the fatted bull or ox (boeuf gras). Nowadays king cake is the most widely recognized symbol of pre-Lenten feasting. It customarily appears on Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, but is most in demand in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday.
Included with each cake is a small plastic baby. In New Orleans, popular custom holds that whoever receives the slice that contains the baby must purchase the next cake and throw a party.
Concealing a tiny treasure in a celebratory cake has long been a tradition in Europe. Originally a bean was used, and its discovery commemorated the discovery of Jesus’ divinity by the Magi. Legend has it that the cakes were made in the shape of a ring and colorfully decorated to resemble a bejeweled crown. The finder of the bean or trinket, duly anointed king or queen, would preside over the festivities, often with a consort of his or her choosing.
Perhaps in part because king cake has become so commonplace — appearing on Friday afternoons at the office or practically any festive occasion during the Carnival season — utilizing the so-called “luck-of-the-draw” method, whereby the finder of the cherished plastic baby is automatically elevated into the pantheon of royals, is more the exception these days than the rule.
In any case, whoever gets the baby is supposed to buy the next cake. It’s a game, based on an honor system. The party-goer who gets the slice with the baby is supposed to announce, “I got the baby!”
Alas, as the king cake ritual has taken on a more casual form, reports of abuses have surfaced. King-cake cheats, as described by Siona LaFrance in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “get the baby, but remain mum.” Or they “cut into the cake and, if the knife touches plastic, shift it to avoid the baby, or worse, leave the baby orphaned amidst the crumbs and sugar icing.”
As horrifying as that may seem, things can get even uglier when king cake neophytes mistake the ritual for a treasure hunt and their fork for a shovel. Consider what ensued when Maria Chandler, a New Orleans native residing in Beverly Hills, decided, as she relates in an interview, to “share the culture” with some newbies.
“I said, ‘Whoever gets the baby gets to throw another king cake party.’ Everybody thought, ‘Oh, Mardi Gras king cake party! I want a piece!’
“It was pandemonium,” she continues. “They all went crazy. They ate some of it, but they were digging for that baby. That was the main objective.” Result: culinary carnage.
Mardi Gras is an idiosyncratic melding of the sacred and profane, but when it comes to king cake, not much is sacred anymore. There are now K-9 king cakes for dogs, and it’s not unheard of for school kids to be served peanut-butter-and-jelly king cake. Moreover, king cakes come in shapes and colors to complement just about any occasion.
Amidst the king cake blitz, one can at least take comfort in the fact that a Mardi Gras king cake is still dutifully topped with purple, green and gold/yellow granules or sprinkles. These colors are to Mardi Gras what red, white and blue are to the 4th of July.
History doesn’t record the exact reason why the Rex organization, in making its Mardi Gras debut in 1872, adopted the color scheme, though Carnival historian Errol Laborde, in his book Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization, plausibly asserts that the krewe members were guided by the laws of heraldry.