While Mardi Gras history is one of those legends that remains unsettled to this day, this is the most common story.

In 1829, several young men returned from a visit to Paris back to their home town of New Orleans, Louisiana. While in Paris, they fell in love with a lively French custom and made efforts to bring this custom to New Orleans. They dressed in costumes and masks and paraded through the narrow streets of the French Quarter of New Orleans. People saw them and became excited by the spectacle. More people joined and followed them until they caught the attention of the ladies of the town, who leaned over their balconies and threw chocolates and kisses to them. From that time on, masked walking parades became fashionable in New Orleans in the springtime.

Over the years, the festivals became more organized and elaborate. In 1857, a group of people calling themselves “The Mystick Krewe of Comus” made their way through the streets on floats pulled by horses. One float was carrying the king of the Krewe on a throne and another carried a devil sitting among flames made from paper and representing hell.

In 1872, a person of true royal blood found his way into the festival. Alexis Alexandrovich Romanov, the brother of the heir to the Russian throne, visited New York and fell in love with an American actress named Lydia Thompson. He followed her to New Orleans, where the Mardi Gras was being planned. When the planners discovered that a royal person was attending the noisy festivities a float was added for a new king, “Rex.” (Thus was born the Krewe of Rex – an important cornerstone of the history of Mardi Gras.)

That year set the pattern for the boisterous fashion in which the Mardi Gras is celebrated today. Purple, green and gold became the official holiday colors. The Grand Duke Alexis was surprised and honored to sit on the float and play the role of Rex. Alexis and Lydia probably never even met, but they began a tradition. Rex and his queen are chosen each year to ride on the largest float. They are masked and in costume. Those around the royalty, called “maskers,” toss “throw-outs” to the crowd in response to the traditional cry, “Throw me something mister!” The “throw-outs” are large tin coins, plastic beads and other trinkets.

The holiday had become a full carnival by the time Alexis participated. The word “carnival” comes from the Latin and means “take away the meat.” It is a time of merry-making and intense fun because “Fat Tuesday” is the last day that Catholics can eat meat before Lent. “Ash Wednesday” officially marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period of fasting before Easter. Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lengten-tid” (a lengthening time).

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