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Lundi Gras at 25

Twenty-five years ago this Carnival season, a new phrase became part of the common language of the celebration, “Lundi Gras.” Meaning “Fat Monday,” the phrase had popped up occasionally in various, mostly aged, publications – especially in reference to Creole traditions – but it wasn’t at all widely used. No publications from that time period used it.

That changed with the implementation of a plan that would bring Carnival closer to the river of the city’s birth. The idea called for the Rex organization to revive its custom of having the King of Carnival arrive by ship on the day before Mardi Gras. Except for a one-time re-enactment for Rex’s centennial, the tradition had ceased after the 1917 Carnival because of World War I and had never been re-instated. Key to the concept was Riverwalk, then owned by the Rouse Corporation, (not the local grocery chain but a Maryland-based company specializing in urban waterfront redevelopment projects such as Baltimore’s Harbor Place, New York’s South Street Seaport and Boston’s Faneuil Hall). As is now the case, Riverwalk had access to adjacent Spanish Plaza, which would be the location of the Rex arrival.

Unlike the Rex arrivals of yore (which were most often done before a small gathering of people) there would be much more. With Riverwalk acting as the producer, bands would be playing from the Spanish Plaza stage throughout the afternoon. The organized festivity would reach its crescendo with Rex and the mayor symbolically igniting a firework show to announce the arrival of Mardi Gras six hours before the clock said so.

Since the day before Mardi Gras had historically been a slow day for Carnival activities (other than the Proteus parade), the whole package of events was given a collective name that would emphasize the Monday, hence the name Lundi Gras.

There was great uncertainty for the first arrival, but the crowd was good; Rex had created a new nautical costume for his river arrival and Riverwalk did its part expertly.

In the years to follow the term “Lundi Gras” would be embraced as though it had always been commonly spoken. Soon there would be spin-offs such as Samedi Gras and, the biggest stretch, Family Gras. Zulu would join the activity and began staging its own arrival an hour before Rex. In one of Carnival history’s happier developments, for the last several years Zulu and his entourage have gone to visit Rex. The two monarchs and various mayors have boogied together on the same stage.

At its simplest level Lundi Gras starts the partying a day earlier, filling the festivity gap between Sunday and Tuesday. But there’s an urban story here too. The celebration’s evolution was another benefit from the 1984 world’s fair, which created the infrastructure that made Riverwalk possible. The fair was a manifestation of change in urban riverfronts from industrial to leisure. Like the mayor and Rex, urban planning and Carnival sprit also came together on one stage.

A quarter-century later Lundi Gras is more popular than ever. This year the fourth different mayor will welcome the 25th different Rex. Riverwalk has changed owners twice, but happily the facility has maintained its commitment and provided its expertise.

Once again the sky will be ablaze with colors and we can all appreciate that what is just another Monday throughout the rest of the world is something special in New Orleans.

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