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Krewes-ing through everything about Carnival vs. Mardi Gras

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Jaeden Evans, 5, of Moss Point adds another strand of beads to his collection during the Ocean Springs Elks Lodge Mardi Gras parade on Saturday Jan. 23, 2016.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Jaeden Evans, 5, of Moss Point adds another strand of beads to his collection during the Ocean Springs Elks Lodge Mardi Gras parade on Saturday Jan. 23, 2016. SUN HERALD

Mardi Gras vs. Carnival

We're not supposed to, but we denizens of Mardi Gras land use the words Carnival and Mardi Gras interchangeably.

Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday in French, is the one-day culmination of a very long Carnival season. Mardi Gras this year is Feb. 9.

Carnival is the actual season, this year 35 days' worth. Carnival begins Jan. 6 every year and is called Kings Day, Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany. Carnival ends at midnight Fat Tuesday.

Why does the date change?

The date of Mardi Gras is never the same in successive years. Last year, it was Feb. 17.

Everyone's life would be simplified if Mardi Gras fell on the same date each year, but the reason for the fluctuation goes back centuries to when the Catholic Church established a fixed date for Christmas but moveable dates for other religious holidays.

Easter was set to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox, so Easter may fall any Sunday between March 23 and April 25. Mardi Gras is then scheduled 47 days before Easter and can occur on any Tuesday from Feb. 3 through March 9.

Here are a few upcoming dates; Feb. 28, 2017; Feb. 13, 2018; March 5, 2019; Feb. 25, 2020; and Feb. 16, 2021.

Who gets the credit?

Ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts get the credit, or blame, for Mardi Gras and Carnival.

Mardi Gras is rooted in Lupercalia, a spring fertility festival celebrated by the Greeks more than 3,000 years ago. Masking and overindulgence were commonplace, but once in Roman hands, Lupercalia became an orgy in which face masks were necessary to hide misconduct.

In a zeal to make Christian converts, church leaders linked existing pagan feasts to benchmark Christian events.

For example, winter solstice was linked to the birth of Jesus, and Lupercalia to the onset of the Lenten season of penance. In so doing they allowed people to keep their festivals, but tempered by Christian teachings.

These observances eventually came to the New World. And as present-day Mississippi was colonized by the French, it was they who brought the Carnival season to this area in 1699.

Why are they throwing things?

"Throw me something, Mister!" is an oft-repeated phrase on parade routes; it is a learned response.

Early French and Spanish colonists masquerading in the streets on New Orleans and Mobile sometimes tossed trinkets and sugar-coated almonds to the crowds, as they had in Europe; hence the plea for something to be thrown.

This led to dangerously heavy items being hurled for a time, but the organized krewes brought things under control, and relative calm was restored before the advent of the 20th century.

Glass-bead necklaces were the most popular trinkets until 1960, when the first aluminum doubloons were minted and tossed into crowds along New Orleans streets. The coins are the invention of a retired sea captain and engraver named H. Alvin Sharpe, who convinced the Rex organization they would be a "sensation."

Glass beads were replaced by plastic beads, partly for safety and partly for cost. Today the longer the string of beads, the harder spectators work to get it.

The 1980s brought plastic souvenir cups, and in the 1990s krewe trading cards and bikini underwear were added to the list of popular throws.

Moon Pie madness

When they hit you, some parade throws hurt, but not the Moon Pie.

They're soft, they're sweet and spawned by a Mobile krewe. They've come to the Mississippi Coast as a popular throw.

Moon Pies were born in Chattanooga, Tenn., about a century ago as a working man's treat -- something inexpensive and sweet.

Thanks to Carnival, the chocolate-coated marshmallow-filled cookie is popular again. At least in our region.

The idea of throwing them in parades belongs to Mobile, where krewes are always in search of ways to be different from New Orleans.

They decided to replace Cracker Jacks boxes with the big cookies, the former having sharp dangerous corners, the latter being round and soft. Moon Pies began to turn up in Coast parades in the 1990s.

The parades

Long before there were organized parades, Biloxi, Pass Christian and other Coast-area towns had their own 19th-century street masking and their own balls.

The first-known Coast parade didn't roll until 1891 when seven floats appeared on the streets of Biloxi in what was described in the newspaper as a "brilliant pageant."

Parading really took off after the Gulf Coast Carnival Association's forerunner, The Biloxi Carnival & Literary Association, staged its first parade in 1908. The group incorporated in 1916, one year after the Pass Christian Men's Carnival Association's first parade rolled.

Today, the St. Paul Carnival Association, a descendant of that early organization, stages one of the Coast's most popular parades.

After World War II and during the 1950s and '60s new krewes sprouted, and they continue to do so. Some host only balls and parties; others stage whole parades or sponsor floats in other parades.

Krewe is a weird spelling

Krewe?

The spelling is strange but the term is familiar to Carnival celebrants, even though krewes started as part of a New Year's Eve frolic in Mobile.

In 1830, Capt. George Higgins and Michael Krafft were doing their New Year's imbibing when they gathered rakes and cow bells from the local hardware store and paraded down the streets, stopping at houses along the way for more merriment.

To repeat the grand time, they created the Cowbellion de Rakin Society and paraded every New Year's Eve.

In 1857, several Protestant Cowbellions who'd moved to Catholic New Orleans adapted the idea for that city's waning and roughneck Mardi Gras.

The righteous clamored to ban the celebration, but to the rescue rode the Cowbellion-inspired Mystick Krewe of Comus, which introduced order and dignity into the chaotic celebration.

Krewe quickly became part of the Carnival lexicon. The word is a bit made up and a bit Anglicized, which at first offended the Catholic French and Creoles. Krewe-mania, however, was unstoppable.

Why purple, green and gold?

Surely you've noticed the colors of Carnival: purple, green and gold.

They first appeared in 1872 on the Rex Carnival flag specially designed for the visiting grand duke of Russia. He came to New Orleans just for Carnival, and the colors remain his legacy. Rex, the New Orleans monarch of Carnival, later assigned a meaning to each color.

Purple represents justice.

Green is for faith.

Not surprisingly, gold signifies power.

Mardi Gras words you should know

A good Carnival question: Why do we say what we say?

Admit it, some Mardi Gras, aka Carnival, words are a bit strange to untrained ears. Krewe? Tableau? And what do you want in "throw me"?

We've culled through our archives and compiled a glossary of Mardi Grad words, so, herewith, your Carnival dictionary:

Beads: A necklace favored among parade throws (see throw), especially if it is long and fancy. Both men and women, boys and girls, wear them.

Boeuf Gras (say it, burf graw): Literally translated, fat beef or fatted calf, from the celebration's pagan roots. In Mardi Gras terms, a big, fat white bull, usually made of papier mache today, signifying the feast before the fast of Lent.

Carnival: The season that stretches from Twelfth Night (aka the Feast of the Epiphany or the Feast of Kings) on Jan. 6 to Mardi Gras Day, Feb. 9 this year. Carnival is rooted in ancient pagan traditions that were Christianized.

Carnival colors: Purple, green and gold first appeared in 1872 on a Krewe of Rex (New Orleans) flag designed for the visit of the Grand Duke of Russia. The colors quickly were adopted as official for the season.

Court: King, queen, maids and dukes of a Carnival krewe or organization. Krewes have dens, places where they meet and make floats.

Cowbellion de Rakin Society: Formed on New Year's 1831 in Mobile. A group of revelers grabbed cow bells and rakes and began to parade. Three of their number moved to New Orleans and adapted the idea to form Comus, the first Mardi Gras krewe.

Doubloon: Large round aluminum coins used as throws. One side is stamped with the krewe name and insignia. The year's ball and parade theme is stamped on the other.

Epiphany (say it, ee-PIFF-a-nee): The night on which the Three Wise Men found the newborn Jesus. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, falls on Jan. 6, and it signifies the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Carnival.

Float: Used for a parade unit that is on wheels. It can be as tiny as a kid's imaginatively decorated wagon or as large as a platform pulled by a semi-truck and filled with several dozen costumed people throwing trinkets and candy to parade-goers.

King cake: A sweet pastry oval, shaped like a crown, baked and served during Carnival season. In modern times, a miniature figure of a baby is placed inside the cake. The person whose slice contains the baby will have good luck for a year but in return must provide the next day's king cake.

Krewe: The fanciful spelling of crew is a fabricated term for a Mardi Gras organization. Coined by Comus, a New Orleans Carnival organization, it simulates Old English. Krewe names at first were drawn from Roman, Greek, Norse or Egyptian mythology. Some krewes merely stage Mardi Gras parties or balls and possibly join in another krewe's parades; the larger krewes organize parades.

Lent: For Christians, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection, fasting and abstinence.

Mardi Gras: Rooted in ancient pagan festivities, it is French for Fat Tuesday, a symbolic name for the overindulgence before Lent. Mardi Gras can occur on any Tuesday from Feb. 3 through March 9. The fluctuating date was established by the Catholic Church, which designed the Gregorian calendar with a fixed date for Christmas but movable dates for other religious holidays.

Mardi Gras tree: This tradition of changing a Christmas tree into a Carnival tree with purple, green and gold decorations took root in the 1980s, gathered speed in the 1990s and now in the 21st century, restaurants, homes and businesses along the Mississippi Coast, and of course in New Orleans and Mobile, have these visual tributes to the season.

Masking: The wearing of masks and costumes by both those in the parades and those watching the parades, the once widespread tradition of spectator masking is on the wane.

Tableau (say it, tah-BLOW): The story, music, costumes and pageantry of a Carnival ball. Each year, a krewe chooses a new theme for its ball, and around this theme is woven the entertainment that is usually staged by krewe members.

"Throw me something, Mister": The age-old cry of parade spectators eager to attract the attention of float-riders. The phrase, for which a loud voice is essential, is used to catch the eye or attention of someone on a float, who will then throw you a trinket

Throws: Inexpensive trinkets tossed from floats by costumed men, women and children. Sugared almonds and other sweets were the earliest throws, replaced in modern times by necklaces, plastic cups, soft toys, candy and doubloons.

Walking club: A group of walkers with a common theme and costume. One of the best known on the Coast is the Ole Biloxi Marching Club, a group of men who swap paper flowers for kisses.

The above information, mostly compiled by former Sun Herald staff writer, Kat Bergeron, has appeared in the Sun Herald in various forms over the years.

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