Fat Tuesday, last day before Lent’s forty day fast;
Mardi Gras magic exudes from every pore,
Elaborately costumed krewes toss beads off floats,
Give rise to fanciful celebrations of the dead,
Historic carnival steeped in Catholic doctrine.
Mardi Gras is a Christian holiday and popular cultural phenomenon that dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival or Carnaval, it’s celebrated in many countries around the world, mainly ones with large Roman Catholic populations. Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated on Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. This year Mardi Gras is February 21 which means the season will last a little more than six weeks.
Mardi Gras is one of the many worldwide celebrations that recognize Fat Tuesday—the last day before Lent which historically was characterized by giving up meat, sweets, and other delicacies. Originating in medieval Europe, by the 17th and 18th centuries the festivities had become an annual event for the French House of the Bourbons.
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 Masque de la Mobile, a secret society 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, The King of Carnival, 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 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.
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. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras throws.
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 clearly 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.
Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies.
What was Mardi Gras like in 1898? Arthur Hardy who publishes an annual guide to the New Orleans celebration searched for decades to find out, looking for a film of the parade that year that was only rumored to exist. He finally found it nearly 5,000 miles away at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The footage which was recently shown at the Louisiana State Museum is the oldest-ever film of New Orleans. “This probably, in Louisiana film history, is the most important find,” said Louisiana film historian Ed Poole.
Footage from the 1899 Mardi Gras shows that while Mardi Gras parades from over a century ago are in many ways similar to today’s, the festival has certainly evolved. For instance, while modern revelers often dress casually (and sometimes wear very little clothing at all), parade-goers in 1898 donned formal attire and carried parasols. People riding on floats were not throwing beads or coins into the crowd and no police or barricades were present for crowd control.
On the flipside, one tradition from 1898 has since disappeared: The traditional revelry of boeuf gras or fatted ox was once a live bull. The film shows an actual bovine perched atop one of the floats. This tradition ended in the early 20th century when officials decided it was “no longer tasteful.” Today’s parades opt instead for a papier-maché version.
It’s certainly grown and changed a bit but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same.
Future Mardi Gras Dates
February 13, 2024
March 4, 2025
February 17, 2026
February 9, 2027
February 29, 2028
February 13, 2029
March 5, 2030
It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.