The Mystique of Mardi Gras: Inside the History of Fat Tuesday

Believe it or not, Fat Tuesday wasn’t always a day of parades and beads

Beads tossed from parade floats elaborate masked balls, and the brilliant colors of purple, green, and gold. We’re speaking, of course, of Mardi Gras (February 13, 2024), the raucous celebration that falls on the Tuesday before the Christian fasting period of Lent in February and March. Also known internationally as Carnival or Carnaval, the lively annual festival is the hallmark of New Orleans, Louisiana, but its rich history begins well before the establishment of the Big Easy in 1718.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Medieval roots, French legacy

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of Boeuf Gras or fatted calf followed France to her colonies. By that time, the celebration was linked to the Catholic Church and its attempts to discourage indulgences during Lent. 

The English translation of the French Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday and it was originally a single-day celebration in which revelers would eat, drink, and carouse as much as possible before midnight when Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent. It was a day that many recklessly released their inhibitions before the 40 days of fasting that led up to Easter.

Mardi Gras costume exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established Fort Louis de la Louisiane (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras.

In 1704, Mobile established a secret society (Masque de la Mobile), similar to those that form the current Mardi Gras krewes. It lasted until 1709. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull’s head pushed along on wheels by 16 men. Later, Rex would parade with an actual bull, draped in white and signaling the coming Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Secret societies, parades, and beads

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras Carnival appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches or flambeaux lit the way for the Krewe’s members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity.

In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus invoking John Milton’s hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.

In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed and it introduced throws in 1870 which kicked off the tradition of tossing keepsakes from floats into the crowd. While some Krewes, like the krewe of Zulu, choose to throw coveted odd items like coconuts, most Krewes stick to purple, green, and gold beads, the official colors of Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras costume exhibit © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance and they even printed Carnival Edition lithographs of parades’ fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course—themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession). At first, these reproductions were small and details could not be seen. But beginning in 1886 with Proteus’ parade Visions of Other Worlds these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton, and B.A. Wikstrom. Each of these designers’ work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache artist Georges Soulie who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of Carnival’s floats and processional outfits.

1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff’s family colors of purple, green, and gold as Carnival’s official colors. Purple stands for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival’s improbable anthem, If Ever I Cease to Love, was cemented, due in part to the Duke’s fondness for the tune.

The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France culminating with Comus’ magnificent The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species in which exotic paper-mache animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin’s theory and local officials including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana which it still is.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Modern Mardi Gras

Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies. Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by their members, New Orleanians call it the Greatest Free Show on Earth!

Except for the crowds, today’s Mardi Gras isn’t that different from its colonial origins. Secret societies still rule the parades, revelers still try to catch the throws, and indulgence remains the common thread for the entire week of festivities. There’s no experience quite like a New Orleans Mardi Gras experience so as people say in Cajun French at Mardi Gras New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler—let the good times roll!

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Future Mardi Gras Dates

  • March 4, 2025
  • February 17, 2026
  • February 9, 2027
  • February 29, 2028
  • February 13, 2029
  • March 5, 2030

Worth Pondering…

It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.

—Franklin Alvarado