Let the Good Times Roll in Mobile: Birthplace of Mardi Gras

Everywhere else, it’s just a Tuesday

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.
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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.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Franklin Alvarado

How to Celebrate Mardi Gras in 2021?

How to Celebrate Safely

Punxsutawney Phil, the famous weather-predicting groundhog, saw his shadow. But doesn’t that just mean it’s sunny? We’re not about to start taking advice from a groundhog because we know spring camping is just around the corner. And we know there’s still a whole lot of February to get through and though the cheap flights to warmer weather are nonexistent and the Mardi Gras beads will just be thrown onto unsuspecting pets nearby.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mardi Gras typically means dancing in the streets, standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers, and watching one parade after another roll as you slowly become a human bead tree. But Mardi Gras looks a lot different this year. Parades won’t roll. Gone are the parties, concerts, and events that usually make up this festive time of year (and put you in very close contact with your fellow humankind). There will be no large crowds. But that doesn’t mean Mardi Gras is cancelled.

Mobile, home of the first Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And that doesn’t mean you have to sit at home and wait for spring. We’ve rounded up some socially-distant ways to celebrate Carnival season. Sample all the goodies at the King Cake hub, dress your pet in Mardi Gras colors, attend a virtual event, or peruse the elaborate house floats. And while you’re out, don’t forget to order a king cake for me.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How You Can Still Celebrate Mardi Gras in 2021

Short answer: very carefully.

But wait, when exactly is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras takes place on Tuesday, February 16 this year. The date changes each year but here’s a rule of thumb: Easter always takes place on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and Mardi Gras happens 41 days before Easter. It can be as early as February 3 or as late as March 9 depending on when Easter falls. Simple, right? Ha, just kidding!

The lunar calendar and its interactions with the ecclesiastical calendar are complex, to say the least, so all you really need to remember is that Mardi Gras takes place on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off 40 days of pious self-denial among Louisiana’s historically Catholic population.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check Out the House Floats

What are locals doing with the creative energy they’d normally use to learn parade route dance routines, throw bals masqués (masked ball), and make custom throws? They’re decorating objects whose size is comparable with that talent—houses. Krewe of House Floats founder Megan Boudreaux sparked the idea in November. “When the mayor announced parade cancellations, I made an offhand comment on Twitter that I’ll decorate my house and throw things at my neighbors,” Boudreaux said. “Everyone has 200 pounds of beads in their attic.”

Mardi Gras King Cakes at Ambrosia Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The concept took over social media. Now, Boudreaux’s Krewe of House floats boasts more than 3,000 members and 1,000 house floats worldwide. Walk around (while distancing and wearing a mask!) and admire the artistry of unemployed float artists. You could probably also catch a few house floats during GetUpNRide’s socially distant group bike ride which takes place on Mardi Gras day.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat a King Cake

In a state of culinary delights, king cake is…well, king. Baked from cinnamon-laced dough with a small plastic baby inside, the ring-shaped cake is both a delicacy and a tradition. Whoever gets the slice with the baby inside is responsible for buying the next king cake which means eating a lot of sugar during Carnival time. But all good things must come to an end. Most bakeries don’t sell king cakes before January 6 or after Fat Tuesday. Bakeries including Gambino’s, Haydel’s, and Ambrosia will ship king cakes anywhere in the country.

Mardi Gras King Cake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dress Yourself, Your Pet, and your RV in Mardi Gras Colors

It’s a great way to show your support for Carnival during its most challenging year. If you don’t already know what the colors are just look at the sugar topping traditional king cakes and you’ll see the hallowed Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. Purple symbolizes justice, gold symbolizes power, and green symbolizes faith, as designated by the 1892 Rex parade.

Mardi Gras King Cake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the founding of the Rex Organization in 1872 its traditions have helped define Mardi Gras. Rex’s Proclamation invites his subjects to the grand celebration of Carnival. His royal colors of purple, green, and gold are to this day the colors of Mardi Gras and the song played in the first Rex parade, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” has become Carnival’s anthem. Rex and his Queen preside over the Rex Ball, Carnival’s glittering conclusion.

Mardi Gras costume display© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or Make a More Elaborate Costume

Costumes are one of the cornerstones of Carnival and staying home to craft yours is one of the safest things you can do during COVID-19 times. After it’s reached its full potential (or your fingers are hopelessly singed, whichever comes first), put it on and post a selfie. Don your mask, check out house floats, and toast yourself on the day we say farewell to the flesh. You’ve made it this far in a yearlong pandemic that has taken away so many of our traditions and comforts—and you’re part of an unprecedented moment in Madi Gras history. 

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Attend” a Virtual Event

If you aren’t live-streamed out yet, there are plenty of Carnival events to watch in between Zoom meetings. Enjoy Mardi Gras festivities from the comfort and safety of your home with a virtual cooking class from New Orleans School of Cooking. Zoom cooking classes include savory andouille king cake. Krewe of Bacchus launched “Throw Me Something, Bacchus,” a virtual parade app that features throws, floats, throw trading features, and games.

Mardi Gras at Ambrosia Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In response, the Virtual Krewe of Vaporwave, New Orleans’ first virtual krewe (which launched in 2016), will drive down Bacchus’ Uptown parade route. Nola.com will live stream “Mardi Gras for All Y’all”. The virtual event’s more than 90 acts feature chef demonstrations, live performances, interviews, and lots of house floats. Live Streaming platform StageIt will broadcast New Orleans bands including The Iceman Special, Soul Brass Band, Dinola + Malevitus, and The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars.

Worth Pondering…

But, after all, if, as a child, you saw, every Mardi Gras, the figure of Folly chasing Death around the broken column of Life, beating him on the back with a Fool’s Scepter from which dangled two gilded pig bladders; or the figure of Columbus dancing drunkenly on top of a huge revolving globe of the world; or Revelry dancing on an enormous upturned wine glass -wouldn’t you see the world in different terms, too?

—Eugene Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim