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Today is Mardi Gras, the hedonistic final day of the carnival season! Tomorrow, practicing Catholics take up the austere self-privations of the Lent, but today is given over to parties and spectacle.
Every year, I vow to go down to New Orleans and look for exiguously clad replacements to the smoldering Delta flame of yesteryear, but every year I end up in some gray northern office celebrating with nothing more than an unhealthy sandwich and a stack of paperwork. This year…well the same thing happened, but at least I can celebrate the flamboyant colors of Mardi Gras–green, gold, and purple.
The official colors of Mardi Gras go back a long way. It has been claimed that the colors were chosen in 1872 by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanov, a naval officer who was on a goodwill tour of America–although it is possible that the Grand Duke, a famous bon vivant, was instead trying to describe and order a cocktail made of lemon, lime, and purple bitters (a reliable history of carnival is obscured by the mists of time and a generous fog of alcohol). In 1892, Rex, the ceremonial king of carnival, ascribed a symbolic virtue to each color and equated them with Christian holy days. Purple represents Justice (and Lent). Gold stands for power (and Easter). Green is symbolic of faith (and Epiphany).
Since those days the colors have become more and more pervasive and now they can be found festooned everywhere. The beads, toys, and false coins thrown from parade floats are frequently green, gold, and purple, as are many masks, costumes, decorations, and promotional materials/goods. The lurid colors allude obliquely to royalty and many Mardi Gras objects are additionally decorated with crowns and fleurs de lis.
Whatever the historical or symbolic significance of the colors, I can’t help but notice their similarity to the colors of spring’s first crocuses which begin to pop up at the end of winter (especially during warm winters like this). Like the bright Kelly green of Saint Patrick’s day, the gold, purple, and green of Mardi Gras always remind me that the seasons are changing for the better and the verdancy and fecundity of spring is right around the corner.
The fleur de lis is an ancient stylized representation of a flower—most likely Iris pseudacorus a golden-yellow species of Iris, native to Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa. The motif can be found as far back as Assyria and ancient Egypt, but it became universally prevalent after it was gradually adopted as a symbol by the Kings of France from the 11th to the 12th centuries AD. Apocryphal mythology from the middle ages maintains that the connection between the fleur de lis and the throne of France dates back much farther–to the very beginning of the French crown when Frankish warriors invaded Roman Gaul during the 5th century AD. According to the legend, Clovis, the first of the Merovingian Kings, who was descended from Merovech (himself descended from a river god), had a divine vision in which an angel ordered him to change the three golden toads on his shield to three golden flowers.
The first surviving instance of the flower in heraldic use is a seal showing the future Louis VIII and his shield strewn with fleurs de lis which dates from 1211. Thereafter Bourbon and Capetian kings made extensive heraldic use of fleurs de lis. The standard of many golden fleurs de lis scattered across a sky blue field was changed to three prominent fleurs de lis by Charles V in the mid 14th century.
Over the centuries other principalities, cities, and families took up use of the fleur de lis. The coat of arms of Florence is a large red fleur de Lis—although the shield is a comparatively recent innovation which does not date to Florence’s golden age. The heraldic device of the Medicis, who ruled Florence at its zenith, was a shield with five red balls. Over time Luxemberg, various popes, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also utilized fleurs de lis in their standards.
Since the earliest days of the movement, scouting (known in the US as the “boy scouts” and “girl scouts”) has been symbolized by a fleur de lis. The scouts’ founder, Robert Baden-Powell, a British military officer and aristocrat chose the fleur de lis as a symbol because it was used by the British Army as an armband to identify soldiers who had qualified as “Scouts” (reconnaissance specialists). Baden-Powell asserted that the boy scouts’ fleur de lis also symbolized the compass rose–which always points true north.
The fleur de lis is used by numerous New World cities and provinces which were once part of the French colonies before they were conquered or purchased. Many parts of French Canada, the Mississippi valley, and the French Caribbean still use the Fleur de lis for flags, seals, and coats of arms. New Orleans and Louisiana make particularly extensive use of the fleur de lis in local standards. The famous New Orleans Saints football team is symbolized by a golden fleur de lis which is an anomaly in a league filled with aggressive animal symbols.
Beyond the statehouse and the gridiron, bon vivants, artists and sybarites have also come to informally identify with the fleur de lis. It is seen in quixotic tattoos, extravagant fabrics, and luxury logos. It seems appropriate that the heraldic flower, once the symbol of warriors, soldiers, and conquerers has now come to be associated with beauty, pleasure, and leisure (which seem more in keeping with the nature of irises).