While Mardi Gras has become a broad and varied celebration, many of Carnival's symbols, images, sights and sounds can be traced to the traditions of the Rex Organization, founded in 1872. Rex's traditional colors of purple, green, and gold, have become the colors of Carnival, and "If Ever I Cease to Love," played for Rex since the very first Rex parade, has become its most enduring anthem. A more recent contribution to Mardi Gras tradition was the introduction of specially struck coins or doubloons as parade throws. The gold Rex doubloon continues to be a sought-after throw on Mardi Gras day.
While generally referred to as "The Rex Organization," or simply "Rex," the organization's official name is "The School of Design." The Rex motto, frequently seen on official documents, is "Pro Bono Publico" ("for the public good").
The Title of the King
Rex is known as the "King of Carnival" and the "Monarch of Merriment," but should not be called "King Rex." That would be redundant, since "Rex" means "King." This image of Rex, the King of Carnival, is embossed on the face of the gold Rex doubloon, a popular parade throw.
Early Edicts and Proclamations
Historically Rex has issued a proclamation declaring the date of the Carnival celebration and commanding his subjects to gather and join in the festivities. When Rex began his reign over Mardi Gras in 1872 New Orleans was struggling through the years of reconstruction, and civic leaders wanted to attract more visitors to the city. Proclamations were posted in train depots around the country, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans became a major tourist destination.
Edicts and Invitations
Since Rex issued his first edict in 1872, commanding his subjects to gather to New Orleans, millions and millions of happy visitors have accepted his invitation and traveled to the Crescent City to enjoy Carnival. Each Mardi Gras Season Rex revisits the early tradition of formally extending his "Royal Invitation," inviting all to gather to New Orleans to join in the "Great Carnival Celebration." This new document, incorporating art and text from a century ago, is used by tourism officials and others to warmly welcome our Mardi Gras guests.
The Rex Proclamation
This tradition continues with the release each year of a beautiful Rex Proclamation created by a well-known artist. These proclamations relate to the theme of the Rex parade and have become sought-after works of art. The 2004 Proclamation was created by New Orleans artist Tim Trapolin.
Colors and Flags
The royal colors of purple, green, and gold have been used since Rex's founding, but the original symbolism intended was never made clear. It would make sense that purple, associated with royalty, and gold, the metal of choice for crowns and scepters, would be chosen, and various rules of heraldry may have been applied. The 1892 Rex Parade's theme, "The Symbolism of Colors," suggested that purple, green, and gold symbolized justice, faith, and power, respectively. The Rex flag displays these colors, arrayed diagonally, with a crown in the center field, and is flown during Carnival season at the homes of past Kings and Queens of Carnival.
The Rex Anthem
The official anthem of Rex is "If Ever I Cease to Love," a song from a popular musical comedy of the 1870's called "Blue Beard." This catchy tune was part of the repertoire of Lydia Thompson, a popular British singer whose American tour came to New Orleans in 1872, the year Rex was organized. The Grand Duke Alexis of Russia was also making an American tour, and was the honored guest for the first Rex parade. Legend has long romantically linked the Grand Duke with the singer, and suggested that "If Ever I Cease to Love" was performed for the Grand Duke because of his romantic interest in Miss Thompson. While this is a good story, it is probably not quite true. Bands performed the Russian national anthem for the Grand Duke, and when Rex dismounted on Canal Street to review the parade the bands played "If Ever I Cease to Love." It has been the Rex anthem ever since, played for Rex and his Queen when they arrive at the Grand Ball, for the presentation of the court, and after the meeting of the Rex and Comus courts on Mardi Gras night.
The Arrival of Rex
It has long been the tradition that Rex arrives in his "capital city" by boat. Images from the early years show elegant old sail and steam vessels arriving at a dock on the Mississippi River for the welcoming ceremonies. In more recent years Rex has arrived as part of the Lundi Gras celebration on the night before Mardi Gras. This has become a very popular part of the city's Carnival calendar.
Since the middle ages there have been celebrations and feasts leading up to the forty day Lenten fast. One of the oldest symbols of these ancient pre-Lenten celebrations was the boeuf gras, signifying the last meat consumed before the fast begins. This symbol had a place in the earliest celebrations of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and for the first thirty years the boeuf gras was part of the Rex parade. For some reason it disappeared from the parade after 1900, but was restored in 1959. Traditionally the float carrying the boeuf gras and masked riders dressed as cooks is one of the lead floats of the parade.