Visitors watching their first Rex parade are often puzzled by the figure of a white bull that appears amid the procession of elegant floats. Surrounded by masked men costumed as butchers and bakers, the bovine curiosity appears on Float 4.
In his book "Rex — An Illustrated History of the School of Design," Rex archivist (and 2017 King of Carnival) Stephen Hales explains, “Many Old World parades celebrated a distinctive figure, the Boeuf Gras, or fatted ox, the ancient symbol of the last meat to be eaten before the beginning of the Lenten fast. Dating to medieval times, it is perhaps the modern celebration’s clearest and strongest link to the historic and traditional origins of our Carnival celebration.”
The ancient Druids used an ox in one of their religious rituals. After the beast was paraded around the countryside, it was hoisted above a grate and killed as a sacrifice. Repentant sinners positioned below the ox were said to be purified by the blood, which flowed down upon them.
The boeuf gras was a prominent figure in France as early as 1512. In Paris, the ox was part of a more festive celebration but still met his death at day’s end as the butchers carved him up to feed to the peasants.
In Mobile, Alabama, a Boeuf Gras Society was founded in 1711 and was active until 1817. Early Carnival celebrations in Mobile were called Boeuf Gras.
The first documented appearance of a live boeuf gras in New Orleans came in 1867 in the night parade of Comus. Titled "Triumphs of Epicure," the procession featured maskers on foot in an array of costumes representing food and beverages, with the boeuf gras parading in their midst.
In the first Rex parade, the garlanded and beribboned boeuf gras was paraded through the streets directly behind Rex, who rode on horseback during the processions from 1872 to 1874. Legend has it that Old Jeff, a stockyard bull from Arabi, was used in later years.
Some processions featured a live bull secured to the top of a float. Rex continued to include a live version of the boeuf gras in every parade until 1901, when the tradition was abandoned with a proclamation from Rex himself, stating that the use of the animal “was not in harmony with the beautiful displays which are produced in this era and (it) must be relegated to the past.”
In 1959, Rex issued another proclamation announcing the return, in papier-mâché, of the fabled boeuf gras.
Through the years, Blaine Kern Artists have created several versions, including a comical steer and a brown-spotted bull. Today, a pure white bull appears, flanked by riders, many of whom are past kings of Carnival.