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Nice Carnival Transformed French Riviera

The Nice Carnival enthralled revelers across France at least since 1294. As a last hedonistic hurrah before the fasting and self-denial of Lent, it was one of the most boisterous celebrations of the year. In 1873, the Nice Carnival (Carnaval de Niece) transformed the French Riviera. With more than fifty countries worldwide holding Carnival events, the Nice Carnival is one of the most famous to this day.

Recreated in its modern form in 1873, the Nice Carnival has contributed to shaping the image of the city and of the French Riviera that won its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2023.

Following are a few great moments from the Nice Carnival.


How The Party Got Rolling

Today’s Nice Carnival is one of the world’s most colorful and robust festivals with indulgent feasting, elaborate costumes, masks, flower battles, parades, floats, music and dancing. Some celebrants honor Christian roots, while many are in it for a great party.

Its origins can be traced back to ancient pagan festivals held to chase the gloom of winter in anticipation of spring. This concept takes many forms throughout Europe. Among them are the Witches of Fasnet who parade through towns in Germany and Switzerland before burning their brooms in a bonfire after days of riotous merrymaking before fasting begins.

Francisco Macias writes for the Library of Congress in “The Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season”:

The festivities included imbibing copious amounts of wine and consuming rich foods without restraint.  This gave way to an environment of carnival that led to a reversal of social norms; and gambling, which was an otherwise forbidden vice, was permitted.” (Library of Congress)

As with other holidays including Halloween and Christmas, ancient festivals were blended with Christian religious holidays. Because many human holidays evolve around natural seasons, the timing of blended celebrations fell into place easily.

In the case of Carnival, the dates coincided with the six-week prelude to Lent, the 40-day period of fasting prior to Easter Sunday. 

The Celebration With Many Names

Depending on location, Carnival season can fall between the twelve days after Christmas (January 6) and March, with its final day on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which is the final day of indulgence before forty days of abstention preceding Easter Sunday.

The Church banished meat from the table during Lent, along with fat, dairy products, eggs and sugar. The words Carnival or Carnaval can be traced to Medieval Latin carnem levare meaning without flesh or meat.

Initially French Catholics called the time of approved debauchery Boeuf Gras meaning fatted calf.

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday became the preferred name in many countries.

In England and some other countries, Mardi Gras became known as Shrove Tuesday for the day of confession. Others called it Pancake Day because people often made the dish to use up the last of indulgent ingredients in the house before Lent.

How The Nicoise Got Into The Festive Spirit

The first written record of the Nice Carnival dates back to 1294, when Charles of Anjou, Count of Provence, mentioned his visit to the city for “the joyous days of Carnival”.

At that time the Nice Carnival was more of a spontaneous festival in the streets with people in disguises.

In 1830, Charles-Felix, King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy, and Queen Maria Cristina of Naples and Sicily attended the Nice Carnival. In their honor local leaders organized a parade. Locals dressed in elegant costumes and decorated their carriages.In 1873 Andriot Saëtone founded a Festival Committee to formalize and expand the Nice Carnival.

According to the Nice Carnival official website:

Processions of floats, the ymagiers or illustrators, paying stands, a structured staging directed by Alexis Mossa all made their appearance.” (Nice Carnival)

Let The Flower Battles Begin

In 1876the Flower parades began as simple exchanges of flowers transformed.

“…they have become the poetic, elegant side of Carnival and a showcase for local production. A unique show due to the imagination of the poet-gardener Alphonse Karr.” (Nice Carnival)

A San Antonio citizen had seen a flower parade in Nice, France. The highlight was well-dressed women throwing flowers at each other in a mock battle. Similar flower parades had been seen in Spain and Mexico.

Local socialite Ellen Maury Slayden spearheaded the San Antonio Battle of Flowers Parade to honor the heroes of the Alamo. 

Floating To Fat Tuesday

On 14 February 1882, the modest puppet made of straw and rags in honor of His Majesty “Triboulet” rode on the Royal Float for the first time.

The processions took place in the heart of the city following a dozen different routes, and as soon as the entertainment was over, the party continued in the districts; small floats created for the occasion became the symbols of even more localized festivities.” (Nice Carnival)

Masks Offered A Sense Of Security

From its earliest days, masks were an integral part of the Nice Carnival. Crown and Colony writes:

“…masks were a way for their wearers to escape social constraints and social demands. Mask wearers could mingle with people of all different classes and could be whomever they desired, at least for a few days.” (Crown and Colony)

Wearing masks, along with imbibing copious amounts of wine and consuming rich foods without restraint, made role reversals possible.

This gave way to an environment of carnival that led to a reversal of social norms; and gambling, which was an otherwise forbidden vice, was permitted. Some of the social reversals included the lords of the house serving the slaves.  In fact, one of the traditions associated with the king cake was that the slave who got the piece of cake with the fava bean, trinket, or coin in their piece of cake entitled him to be king for the day.” (Library of Congress)

Let Them Eat King Cake

A signature staple of Mardi Gras is the king cake. A cross between a cinnamon roll and a coffee cake, a king cake is a ring-shaped pastry typically covered in white icing and decorated with stripes of yellow, purple, and green edible glitter, whole pecans, and candied cherries. A tiny plastic baby is baked inside the cake. As tradition goes, whoever discovers the baby inside their slice of cake is supposedly brought good luck. 

Collin Street Bakery Writes:

Depending on which origin story you hear, you might learn that the king cake was derived from the Biblical Christmas story of the three kings. Originally made to celebrate Three Kings Days, also known as the Catholic Epiphany, the baby in the king cake represents infant Jesus.” (Collin Street Bakery)

In the second origin story of the cake that stems from the pagan version, originates from the winter solstice celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture. In this festival, beans were baked into cakes to celebrate the harvest. Whoever found the bean inside the cake was named “king of the day.” 

French Settlers Launched Mobile Alabama’s First Carnival

As global colonialism expanded across the Atlantic Ocean, European settlers brought their cultures and traditions to North America. The settlers of New France (which included modern-day Louisiana) came from Northern and Northwestern France. 

 In 1702 French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville established what is now Mobile, Alabama at Fort Louis de la Louisiane. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated Mardi Gras at 27 Mile Bluff, continuing the cultural traditions of settlers from their homeland in France. The Nice Carnival undoubtedly influenced this first celebration in America.

In 1710, the Bouef Gras Society pulled a bull built from Papiér-maché down Dauphin Street. This is believed to have been the first official carnival “parade” in North America.

By the mid-1800s New Orleans Mardi Gras  parades, floats and costumes dominated the party scene.

May Your Tuesday Be Fat!

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