Every year during Carnival season the question is raised about the significance of the Carnival colors. The true answer has most often been blocked with misinformation. Liberating the truth first raises the question, are we talking about the meaning of the colors purple, green and gold or the origin of the colors? The truth is the meaning can be anything. Through a fluke, Rex, which first proclaimed the colors in 1872 but did not attach a meaning, settled in 1892 for justice, faith and power – 50 year after the colors were announced. Rex borrowed from an earlier parade assigning a meaning to the rainbow of colors, but those were just words from various color association books. They really didn’t mean anything that is significant. Why not borrow from the Louisiana motto of Union, Justice and Confidence? Or from the Boy Scouts’ Trustworthy, Loyal and Helpful? Or in honor of Donald Duck’s nephews; Huey, Dewey and Louie.
On the other hand, if the question is about the origin of the colors you get into some meaningful history. This history provides insight into the minds of the well-educated that were the 19th century men who founded Rex. Disregard what you might have read on king cake boxes or from unknowing websites and publications. Here is the truth, and you need to understand it to appreciate the New Orleans Carnival’s evolution.
The key word here, and a word that has been missing from attempts to solve the colors’ origin, is “heraldry.” The explanation of it has a few twists, so hang on tight. Dating as far back as the 15th century, the rules of heraldry governed the colors of coats of arms and, hence, flags and banners. In1872, the founding men of Rex, educated and steeped in the romanticism of monarchy, would have been familiar and respectful of heraldry.
According to heraldry, the “fields” in a heraldic device, such as a flag or banner, should consist of “metals” and “colors.” The metals are either silver, represented by white, or gold. Indeed, every national tricolor has either white or gold. So then for one of Rex’s choices the selection was narrowed to two. Should the metal be gold or should it be white? The choice of gold for royalty seemed obvious.
Now with the metal settled, how about the colors? According to heraldry, there are only five acceptable choices. In the context of Rex, they are startling. The acceptable colors are: red, blue, purple, green and black. With purple being a logical choice, especially for a king, and with gold as the metal, the final choice came down to two combinations: purple, gold and green or purple, gold and black. Which would you pick?
But now there’s a concern. According to heraldry a metal should never touch a metal and a color should never touch a color. It would be improper for a flag to be, red, blue and white. Yet, Rex’s field is often spoken of as being purple, green and gold, a heraldic faux pas placing a color on top of a color. Does this disprove the heraldry theory? No. It actually supports it because…
In the days preceding the first Rex parade when the Royal edicts were published, the field, as first mentioned in Edict XII, were stated as being, in this order, “green, gold, and purple.” Over time the order of the colors would be changed in popular verbal usage, yet when Rex first pronounced them they were in perfect heraldic order.
(The combination of colors does have the extra benefit of looking good together but that is not the reason they were selected. Practically all tricolor symbols with their metal of gold or silver in the center look good together; i.e. red, white and blue.)
Could there be another answer to the meaning of the colors? Perhaps, but any other answer would have to contend with the Rex colors fitting so perfectly into heraldry.
What then should the simple answer be when the color’s origin is asked? The problem is that the answer is not simple, certainly not as simple as the prevailing inaccurate answer of “justice, faith and power.” But the truth only strengthens Rex’s monarchical status: Like all great sovereigns, the colors are based on the laws of heraldry.
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