Pre-Lenten partying and feasting is a custom that dates back to the Middle Ages. One of the oldest symbols of that tradition is the fatted bull, representing the last meat eaten before the fasting of Lent begins. The fatted bull, or “Boeuf Gras,” is a representation of Mardi Gras in New Orleans today, although there was a time when it was absent from the festivities.
The Krewe of Rex led their first Mardi Gras parade in 1871 with Old Jeff, a live bull that was covered with flowered garlands and led on a rope down the parade route. This live bull became Rex’s Boeuf Gras and was a part of the Rex parade for the next 30 years. It disappeared from the parade after 1900, and was not seen again until 1959, when it reappeared as a papier-mâché version. The Boeuf Gras float has since then traditionally led the Rex parade, and is usually accompanied by riders masked as cooks.
Its 1959 appearance marks a time when Rex was parading for just the second time along a new route. In ’58, the route was changed so that Rex would pass the newly opened City Hall on Perdido Street, and stop there for the traditional toast to the mayor. For four years, until 1962, Rex followed this route, and then reverted back to the traditional route that passes Gallier Hall, where Rex continues the toast tradition before heading to the Rex ball and the Meeting of the Courts.