A Brief History of Mardi Gras in America
What Are Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Shrove Tuesday?
In modern times, Carnival (sometimes called Carnaval) is celebrated in the days and weeks that precede Lent. Since Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras (literally translated from the French as "Fat Tuesday") is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday. To make things even more confusing, the occasion is often referred to as "Shrove Tuesday" in the British Commonwealth.
As anyone from Latin America or New Orleans can tell you, however, Carnival season can last for weeks before the big Tuesday date that arrives in either late February or early March. In New Orleans, the Mardi Gras season officially begins with king cake parties in January and slowly builds with weekend parades that culminate in massive street celebrations during the days just before Lent.
Pagan Origins and Lupercalia
According to most historians, Mardi Gras derives from a popular, pre-Christian festival called Lupercalia, which can be traced back several thousand years to Ancient Roman times. In the city of Rome, the celebration of Lupercalia occurred in February to honor the arrival of spring and pay homage to Lupercus, the Roman god of fertility. During this popular pagan festival, Roman citizens took joy in the arrival of the new season by feasting, drinking, and being debaucherous.
Fat Tuesday in Europe
In France, the name Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, stuck because the holiday was, among other things, a time to enjoy feasting on fatty meats, a popular activity that was forbidden or extremely limited during Lent. In contrast to the bawdy French Catholics, the Protestants of Europe applied an entirely different meaning to the day before Lent. They called it Shrove Tuesday, and it became an occasion to enjoy pancakes and confess one's sins to a "man of the cloth."
By the time the Italian Renaissance was underway, Mardi Gras was a popular celebration marked more by indoor masked balls than outdoor parades. Italian city-states such as Rome and Venice joyously celebrated the occasion, as did the House of Bourbon in Catholic France. In Paris, Mardi Gras celebrations were quite popular and featured lively street activities including the Parade of Masks, wherein all participants were expected to wear masks.
French Settlement and the First American Mardi Gras
In pre-Revolution times, Mardi Gras in North America was vigorously celebrated by French settlers while being ignored—or, in some cases, even outlawed—by other Colonial entities. Though the very first Mardi Gras celebration in North America occurred in Mobile, Alabama in 1703, another historical footnote took place a few years earlier on the banks of the Mississippi River.
The LeMoyenne Brothers
In March of 1699, two French explorers and brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, were traveling up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. On the third day of that month, they came across a small tributary flowing into the river. Since the day corresponded with the Mardi Gras celebration back in France, the small stream was named Bayou Mardi Gras, and the adjacent piece of land was called Le Pointe de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras Point).
The First American Celebration in Mobile, Alabama
Early American celebrations of Fat Tuesday were likely quite small, but it did not take long for pre-Lenten celebrations to take hold in the French settlements along the Gulf Coast. The LeMoyne brothers left their Mississippi River bivouac and went on to form a real settlement at Mobile Bay in present-day Alabama. At first, this place was called Fort Louis de la Mobile, and in 1703, the fledgling seaport held the first real Mardi Gras celebration in America. The citizens of Fort Louis were quick to create their own parades and street celebrations similar to those they knew back in France.
The Rise of Mardi Gras in New Orleans
New Orleans was not settled until 1718, but once a stable community started growing on the river, it did not take long for Mardi Gras festivities to commence. However, during the first fifty years of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, masked balls—not the colorful parades and floats that we know today—were the center of the festivities.
Around 1780, as the Gulf Coast city grew, parades also became an important part of the pre-Lenten celebration. This tradition continued until about 1850 when violence threatened to end Mardi Gras celebrations in the Crescent City. It was at this time that the formation of secret "krewes" was initiated to combat the violence. The first krewe was called "Comus," and today there are close to 100 krewes in operation, all dedicated to the joyous celebration of Carnival.
Bourbon Street's Modern-Day Tourist Attraction
The Twentieth Century brought about two world wars, but it also heralded the arrival of the automobile and commercial aviation. Before long, this festive Gulf Coast extravaganza was attracting visitors from all across the United States and beyond. As a result, Mardi Gras today is a billion-dollar affair that attracts huge crowds and practically dominates the New Orleans economy. Floats have become a big deal, and a handful of talented design companies now work year-round to create the lavish mobile sculptures and ornate costumes that modern revelers have come to expect.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2020 Harry Nielsen