From Russia with Mardi Gras Colors?

Mardi Gras Colors

Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff

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New Orleans has openly celebrated Mardi Gras since the 1730s, when the French settlement, Nouvelle Orleans, held Mardi Gras balls with no parades. The Spanish christened it “carnival” in about 1780 — still, no parades. In fact, New Orleans did not see its first Mardi Gras parade until the 1830s.

Then came the krewes: Krewe Of Comus (1856) and the second krewe of The Twelfth Night Revelers (1870), which gave us the first of the Mardi Gras “throws” during the early street parades. Now, try to imagine New Orleans street parades without the trinity of Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold. In fact, New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras without the iconic color palette of purple, green and gold until 1872. Even then, the colors were not explained until 1892.

Rex: the King of Carnival

Mardi gras colors
Detailed invite of the first Rex parade, 1872, New Orleans

It’s a great Mardi Gras mystery steeped in Legend. No one knows for certain, but some say that the choice of the holy Mardi Gras colors date back to 1872 and a visiting, foreign dignitary: Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff. This all falls in conjunction with the first day parade, that of Rex: the King of Carnival!

When it was established that the Grand Duke of Russia would include New Orleans on his overseas tour, the citizens decided to amp up Mardi Gras, and the first day parade was born. According to historians, the New Orleans newspapers at the time said that the King of Carnival did decree those balconies in the city, and most of the city itself, should be “draped in purple, green and gold.”

No explanation was given by the newspapers. No public explanation or speech was made as to why these specific colors had been chosen; it just all happened to coincide with the Russian royalty’s visit to The Big Easy in 1872. A tricolor flag was designed to honor Rex, King of Carnival.

Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich

Mardi gras colors
Lesser Coat of Arms for the younger sons of the emperor of Russia

Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, who arrived in New Orleans accompanied by US General Custer (yes, that General Custer), must have been quite taken aback by the city’s display of colors, which are prominently displayed in his own family coat of arms. Some speculate that the Rex parade organizers had either been advised ahead of time or viewed a copy of the Grand Duke’s family colors of purple, gold and green.

Interestingly, the anthem of Mardi Gras was established by the krewe of Rex in the same year, 1872. “If Ever I Cease To Love”, written a year prior in London by George Leybourne, was chosen. Why this song written by a British composer? The Legend states that this song just so happened to be the favorite of the Grand Duke of Russia at the time. Did New Orleans go this far out of its way to appease visiting royalty? Again, no one really knows for sure. But, it adds to the mystery and wonder of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

What the Colors Represent

Mardi gras colors
Tricolor flag of Rex. Image Credit:

As the colors were adopted in 1872, there was no public explanation (other than typical colors of heraldry and royals worldwide) until 1892, when it was established that someone had given an explanation behind the colors — none of which had anything to do with a Russian Grand Duke. According to the newspapers in 1892, purple signified Justice, green signified Faith, and gold was the color of Power.

To this day, the colors still drape the city, the tricolored flag of Rex still flies high, a visiting king is chosen and the anthem of Mardi Gras is still “If Ever I Cease To Love” in the city of mysterious delights and home of the “greatest free show on Earth.”

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