The Surprising History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is no ordinary party. Whether the celebration is in Trinidad; Brazil; Mobile, Alabama; or next door in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is the Mother of All Street Festivals. And if it feels like a holiday in New Orleans, it’s because Louisiana is the sole American state where Mardi Gras is recognized as a legal holiday. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” usually begins the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

Mardi Gras — An Ancient Tradition of Carnivals, Fasting and Prayer

The tradition of revelry preceding strict observances of significant or sacred events is nothing new. History records raucous ancient pagan rituals celebrating the coming of spring as well as other early Roman festivals. With the growing influence of Christianity in Rome, the pagan celebrations merged with the Christian observance of Lent while church officials tolerantly looked the other way. Fun-filled street festivities with music, feasting, jugglers, and other entertainments were soon followed by the solemn observance of Lent with its 40 days of fasting and prayer.  

Food also played a role in the early observance of Lent. During the traditional festivities leading up to Lent, gorging on rich foods like meats, cheeses, milk, and eggs was a big part of that pre-Lenten party. Revelers knew to live it up because shortly thereafter Lent would require weeks of austere meals — comprised mainly of fish — combined with daily fasting and hours of prayer for the atonement of festival and other sins.

Mardi Gras in the New World

What has become the rowdiest of street celebrations in the United States started out as a small acknowledgement of grateful thanks. On March 3, 1699, two French explorers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville, gave a humble prayer of gratitude after arriving safely in an area later named Point du Mardi Gras — not far from what is now New Orleans.

But the most amazing thing about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is that it was not the original site of this pre-Lenten celebration. That often-unrecognized honor goes to Mobile, Alabama. According to the United States Library of Congress, in 1703 a group of French settlers observed the time before Lent with food, wine, and parties at 27 Mile Bluff near Mobile.

To this day, Mobile, has a grand Mardi Gras tradition that is celebrated with parades, bands, and is even televised. A great day trip is spending a few hours at the Mardi Gras museum in Mobile where you can see the incredible costumes worn during parades and balls, and also learn more about the strong African-American presence during Mardi Gras.

With the French Catholic influence solidly in place in Louisiana’s territories, masked balls and bacchanalian parties in homes and in the streets of New Orleans transformed the Old-World carnivals into the Mardi Gras celebration of the New World. Once the Spanish landed in 1763, Mardi Gras festivities were shut down in New Orleans. This prohibition of Mardi Gras remained in place until 1812 when Louisiana finally became a state.

Venice’s Carnivale, with its elaborate masked balls as well as Parisian banquets and street festivals, directly influenced the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Although Mardi Gras festivities continued in Mobile, it wasn’t until 1856 that several businessmen started a celebration in New Orleans. Eventually, Mardi Gras became synonymous with the boisterous, pre-Lenten activities there.

The Emergence of Mardi Gras Krewes

There’s a little mysticism surrounding certain Mardi Gras traditions, like the New Orleans Krewes dating back to the formation of the very first krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857. This was a group of the leading businessmen and citizens of the city who acted as a sort of closed, secret society with their own in-house rituals and practices. One of the functions of the Mistick Krewe was assembling the Mardi Gras processions complete with marching bands and parade floats.

Following in that tradition, today’s krewes organize many of the New Orleans activities like fancy balls, parade floats, and pageants that select the kings and queens of Mardi Gras. Krewes are a point of pride for New Orleans, with many starting to organize for the next year’s festival right after the end of the current Mardi Gras.

Krewes represent a myriad of New Orleans communities, with Rex recognized as the oldest and most well-established Mardi Gras krewe (1872). Many krewes, made up of generations of families and friends, have their own traditions and customs. Still, with Mardi Gras located in the American South, there were instances of racism and discrimination lasting until modern times. In some cases, white krewes refused to allow African-Americans to get involved with Mardi Gras activities. As a result, many white krewes were prohibited from participating in Mardi Gras until they were willing to accept all nationalities into the krewes. Some of those bans are still in effect.

In the African-American community, the best-known krewe is the Mardi Gras Indians, a large group consisting of “tribes” that dress up in extravagant, feathered costumes. This krewe started marching in Mardi Gras around 1885. They are also known for their musical contributions representative of a cultural gumbo of backgrounds and sounds paying tribute to the tribe’s Native-American sensibilities, along with a strong nod to their African roots in both music and dance.

Today, krewe members throw festive and colorful Mardi Gras beads and other trinkets from floats, wear amazing masks, and host some of the most recognized movers and shakers in the community at various balls and fancy dinners. Although there are Mardi Gras events held all over the world in far-flung places like Sydney, Australia; Nice, France; and Copenhagen, the New Orleans celebration will always be seen as the one and only authentic Mardi Gras event.