In cities around the world, and particularly in New Orleans, Mardi Gras fills the late days of winter with colorful revelry. If you’ve ever wondered how this annual tradition got its start, here’s a look at the roots of the holiday and how it developed in the United States.
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” which is the final day before the Christian season of Lent. Fat Tuesday is the culmination of the longer Carnival season that begins in January. It’s traditionally been viewed as one last chance to party and feast on rich foods before Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent’s 40 days of fasting and reflection. While Mardi Gras retains its religious significance for millions of Christians, many other people celebrate it independently of a spiritual tradition.
When did Mardi Gras begin?
Mardi Gras and the broader Carnival season date from the early days of the Christian church, but Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy writes on his website that the celebration may have originated in ancient pagan fertility rituals. These rituals were eventually co-opted by the church as a way to more effectively attract and retain new converts.
When did Mardi Gras come to the U.S.?
Versions of Mardi Gras and Carnival are celebrated around the world. Mardi Gras was first observed on American soil in 1699 by the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. Hardy writes in the New Orleans Advocate that d’Iberville and his team marked the occasion at a site near the mouth of the Mississippi River in what is now Louisiana — even christening the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras.
While most people think of New Orleans when they think of Mardi Gras, the first city to mark the holiday was Mobile, Alabama. According to CNN, Mobile held a Mardi Gras celebration in 1703, the year after the city’s founding.
Residents of the surrounding region, including New Orleans, put on masked balls and threw big parties to celebrate Mardi Gras in the years that followed. But in 1766, Spain took over and banned these celebrations. Masked Mardi Gras balls weren’t allowed again in New Orleans until 1823, well after Louisiana had become a state.
How did Mardi Gras take root in New Orleans?
According to AL.com, Mobile held its first Mardi Gras parade in 1830, organized by the Cowbellion social club, or “krewe.” By 1837, the practice had spread to New Orleans. Authorities and the press frowned upon these frequently rowdy events.
In 1857, Hardy writes, a small group of New Orleans residents formed the Comus krewe and turned Mardi Gras into a more formal and broadly acceptable event permanently associated with the city. Their club organized a Mardi Gras parade, built mythologically themed floats, dressed in masks and elaborate costumes and held a celebratory ball.
In 1875, Mardi Gras became an official Louisiana state holiday. Over the final quarter of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, New Orleans’ celebration exploded in popularity, filling the weeks before Fat Tuesday with parades, music, balls and parties. More and more krewes formed, contributing their own costumes and themed parade floats to the excitement. During these years, many of the most iconic Mardi Gras traditions appeared, including the annual election of Rex, the king of the carnival.
Modern Mardi Gras celebrations draw millions of people every year to the streets of New Orleans and other cities. Although the holiday’s image is often one of excess and indulgence, it’s also a celebration of good times, warm feelings and strengthened community ties.