When you think of Mardi Gras you likely think of New Orleans, beads, and the rowdiness of the French Quarter. The Big Easy has a long and illustrious history with Fat Tuesday, but, believe it or not, it’s not the birthplace of the celebration in America. For that, you have to go about 150 miles east to Mobile, Alabama.
Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to ancient Rome and pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When the Roman Catholic Church rose to power, Church leaders were looking for ways to make it easier for pagans to adopt the faith. Rather than the winter and spring festivals they encouraged a carnival on the day before Lent which starts 46 days before Easter.
The practice migrated to other countries with large Catholic populations at the time including France, Germany, Spain, and England. Traditionally, people would binge eat and drink, scarfing down all the meat, eggs, milk, and cheese in their homes.
The gorging was celebratory since fish and fasting were close to the only things on the menu until Easter. The practice came to be called Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday in France.
In 1699, a French Canadian explorer with a mouthful of a name, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed on the coast of present-day Louisiana. The spot is about 60 miles south of where New Orleans would eventually be founded and Bienville named the place Pointe du Mardi Gras because of the impending holiday. The crew celebrated though it was likely a quieter celebration than today.
In 1702, Bienville founded another town, Fort Louis de la Louisiane. The small settlement celebrated the first official Mardi Gras in what is now the United States in 1703. Fort Louis de la Louisiane eventually turned into Mobile, Alabama, and served as the first capital of the original Colony of French Louisiana. The city of New Orleans, for comparison, wasn’t even established until 1718, 15 years after the first Mobile Mardi Gras.
The French, Spanish, British, and, eventually, Americans all came through and left their mark on Mobile changing how the festival is held. Celebrations waxed and waned over the years as the economy rose and fell, wars came and went, but still, Mardi Gras lives on.
Now on Mardi Gras, clusters of costumed people travel from the banks of Mobile Bay on Government Street, up old and tightly crowded Dauphin Street, and into the center of the city.
The secret societies that dominate the celebration organize themselves on floats just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did before them. Crowds along the street cheer them on and marvel at the costumes catching trinkets and MoonPies thrown from above.
Fewer balconies line the streets of Mobile than New Orleans and fewer tourists come to the city for Mardi Gras but the look and feel is familiar. There are kings and queens, princesses, and debutants. Mobile’s Mardi Gras drinking scene lacks 24-hour bars and a rich cocktail history like New Orleans but it has its own perks.
People can buy 16-ounce to-go drinks in plastic and styrofoam cups from licensed bars and restaurants in the downtown district. MoonPies get more attention than cocktails but bars make MoonPie-inspired cocktails like the ice cream heavy Chrissy (basically consists of vanilla ice cream, vodka, and the hazelnut flavored liqueur, Frangelico) and MoonPie Martinis (served in three popular MoonPie flavors—orange, banana or mint chocolate).
“There is no way to truly tell you what it’s like. You have to experience it,” says Steve Joynt, who runs Mobile Mask, the Mardi Gras guide for the area. “From parades to balls to block parties and parties in private homes, Mardi Gras is what each individual makes it.”
Joynt adds, “Mobile’s Mardi Gras is different from others in a thousand different ways and it’s the same in a few very important ways: It’s a community celebration and an excuse to come together, enjoy each other’s company, and have some fun.”
Mardi Gras 2024 FAQs
When is Mardi Gras 2024? Mardi Gras 2024 or Fat Tuesday is on Tuesday, February 13.
What does laissez les bons temps rouler mean? Parisians are not likely to understand this Cajun French phrase but when you visit the Gulf Coast during Mardi Gras season you’ll hear the locals use this literal translation of the English phrase let the good times roll.
Who can go to a Mardi Gras ball in Mobile? Mobile Mardi Gras ball attendance is invitation only. Members of Mardi Gras Crews who organize the balls can invite non-members to the lavish celebrations.
When did Mobile first celebrate Mardi Gras? Mobile is proud of its Mardi Gras heritage and claims the first official Carnival celebration in the United States. It was started in 1703 by Frenchman Nicholas Langlois when Mobile was the capital of French Louisiana.
What is a mystic society? Mystic societies are secret societies that organize parades and balls during Mardi Gras season. They date back to 1704. The oldest existing parading society is the Order of Myths. Mystic societies each have their own traditions, rich with symbolism and ritual.
What is King Cake? A King Cake is a traditional Mardi Gras pastry with roots in Christian tradition. Traditionally, you start enjoying King Cake on January 6, an epiphany. The pastry is a cakey bread dough formed into a ring and decorated with Mardi Gras colors, gold, purple, and green. Bakers do get creative. A bakery in Daphne, for example, offers a crawfish King Cake.
What are MoonPies? MoonPies come in many different flavors including chocolate, banana, mint, and peanut butter. A MoonPie is made up of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. The MoonPie got its name in 1917 when a coal miner asked a traveling salesman from the company for a snack as big as the moon. The MoonPie website reads, “It was filling, fit in the lunch pail, and the coal miners loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Mardi Gras language: Learn the lingo before the big day
Fat Tuesday, King Cake, Carnival, and Krewes are all popular terms during the Mardi Gras season but what do they mean?
Learn some of the most popular lingo before hitting the parades:
- Epiphany: Held on January 6, this is a Christian holiday that celebrates the three wise men’s visit to baby Jesus. This is also known as the start of the Mardi Gras season.
- Lundi Gras: This is the French term for Fat Monday which is the day before Mardi Gras.
- Mardi Gras: The French term for Fat Tuesday which is the day of the Mardi Gras celebrations.
- Ash Wednesday: This signifies the end of the Mardi Gras season. All the craziness of Mardi Gras comes to an end when the clock strikes midnight on Ash Wednesday.
- Carnival: The term Carnival means farewell to meat which signifies the temporary period before lent. Those who take part in lent can indulge in their humanly desires. The Carnival season begins on Epiphany and ends on Fat Tuesday.
- Mardi Gras Ball: A ball is held after each parade float rolls through the streets of Downtown Mobile. At the balls the royal court is introduced along with dancing and costumes.
- Floats: Mardi Gras floats are extensively decorated trailers driven by trucks during the parades. Many floats throw an assortment of beads, candy, and Mardi Gras-themed items. Each year, those participating in the parade make sure ensure that their floats and costume match the year’s theme.
- Krewe: These are the people that make up the different Mardi Gras organizations. They ride on the floats while also funding and creating the parade.
- Royal Court: These consist of honored members within an organization or krewe. The court normally includes a king, queen, dukes, maids, grand marshals, and more. The royal court is presented at the organization’s balls where they wear elaborate costumes. In order to become part of a royal court, most people have to be on a waiting list for years.
- King cake: This is a festive-looking cake that uses Danish dough, cinnamon, glaze topping, and sprinkles. There is also a plastic baby that is hidden within the cake which is meant to represent baby Jesus on the Epiphany.
- Moonpie: MoonPies are dessert sandwiches that come in multiple different flavors and sizes. These are very popular to use as parade throws.
- Doubloon: There are large coins that are made out of aluminum and used as Mardi Gras throws.
- Throws: These are the material goods that krewes throw from floats during the parades.
And last but not least:
Laissez les bons temps rouler: This is a popular Cajun-French saying during the carnival season that means Let the good times roll.
It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.