New Orleans – If you saw the Rex parade on Mardi Gras day, you may have seen the Boeuf Gras, or the “fattened ox,” but do you know what it represents?
“Boeuf Gras is one of our iconic permanent floats, He’ll always be there,” says Dr. Stephen Hales, who is Rex 2017, and the Krewe of Rex Historian & Archivist.
Inside the Rex Den, Dr. Hales gave WGNO’s Travel Girl, Stephanie Oswald, a closer look at the symbolic float.
Dr. Hales points out that we couldn’t have Mardi Gras without the Catholic Church calendar, which determines the timing of Lent, and therefore which Tuesday will be the one declared “Fat Tuesday.”
The Boeuf Gras is one of the most iconic Rex signature floats and rolls right behind the King of Carnival and his court. It’s the ultimate image of what Mardi Gras means to those who follow the Catholic faith.
“This is the oldest symbol of Mardi Gras, going back to the Middle ages, when the Boeuf Gras or the very large ox or steer, or bull would have been paraded in the city and then slaughtered and eaten that last meat eaten before lent,” explained the historian.
That’s right, thanks to a tradition that hails from Medieval France, during the first several dozen years of Mardi Gras the Rex parade featured a live bull, taken from the stockyard.
But there was a time when Rex leaders felt a stockyard animal wasn’t fit for the beauty of their parade, so the Boeuf Gras left the Rex procession for a time, but returned in 1959 as the magnificent paper mache sculpture we see rolling down St. Charles Avenue today.
In fact, the word “Carnival” comes from the latin “carne-vale” which means “farewell to meat.”
Below the Boeuf Gras, an overflowing cornucopia represents the feasting on Fat Tuesday, before the sacrifices of the season of Lent, which begins the next day.
“I think that’s the rhythm of Carnival, that farewell to flesh; that farewell to the pleasures of eating and drinking and partying too much. If you’re gonna give it all up on Ash Wednesday you’re gonna have a big party on Fat Tuesday,” says Dr. Hales.
Looking up at the stoic white creature that spends most of its life in the Rex Den, Dr. Hales continues: “If you look back to engravings and sketches from centuries ago, that’s exactly what you’d see, the Boeuf Gras with a garland. Often times they would gild the horns and the hooves and make the beast even more beautiful.”
The Rex Organization is steadfast in its traditions, but one year, organizers changed things up slightly and put a Drew Brees jersey on the chef who stands behind the Boeuf Gras; that was the Mardi Gras following the Saints’ Super Bowl victory.
But the role of the Boeuf Gras is all about tradition.
“New Orleans has always been a Catholic City, it’s always been a European City, and these traditions have been here from our founding. I love the fact that our parade helps hold onto those traditions and brings that history forward with it,” says Dr. Hales.
Hail beautiful Boeuf Gras! It stands tall in a bed of flowers, and in a permanent place in Rex history.