The History of Mardi Gras

By Mary Kate Wirfel

Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, has been celebrated throughout the world on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. As the Lenten season dawns upon us, I think that we all should learn where Mardi Gras came from and why it’s so popular in New Orleans,  Louisiana.

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced all the way back to medieval Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, this holiday was known as “Boeuf Gras,” or “fatted ox.”  The tradition traveled to the United States on March 2, 1699. French Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived in the United States 60 miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana, naming the port he arrived at “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” The settlement became known as “Fort Louis de la Louisiane,” and, in 1703, the first Mardi Gras was celebrated.

In 1704, Mobile, Alabama, established a secret society, Masque de la Mobile, similar to the original Mardi Gras krewes. This society lasted until 1709. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was formed. From 1711 to 1861, they held a parade in which 16 men pushed a bull’s head on a wheeled through the streets. Later, they would use an actual bull draped in white sheets and walk the bull through the parade signaling the upcoming Lenten meat fest. This day became known as Fat Tuesday.

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville and by the 1730s Mardi Gras was celebrated, but not with the spectacular parades. In the 1740s, Louisana’s governor, Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls in which people dress up and celebrate. This became a model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls celebrated today.

The earliest known Mardi Gras “Carnival” occurred in 1781. The idea was reported to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association became the first of hundreds of clubs, or krewes–organizations whose members retain anonymity behind masks–that put on a parade or ball for the Carnival season–to form carnival organizations.

By the late 1830s, carriage rides were added to the celebration. Gaslight torches, known as “flambeaux,” were added to the krewe members’ celebration. This was known as “lighting the way to Lent.” In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus and mad John Milton the first-ever president of the krewe. This helped bring dazzling floats, known as tableaux cars, and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.

In 1870, the krewe the Twelfth Night Revelers was formed. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras “throws,” where paraders toss beads, candy, and other goodies to spectators. Newspapers began to announce all the Mardi Gras events ahead of time. At first, the stories were small and basic, but by 1886, the Mardi Gras paper was printed in color. This made the event even more festive. Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton and B. A. Wikdtorm were the paper artists who brought the costumes and floats to life. They did this for the next 40 years. Each year, the parade had a new theme but kept the original idea of Mardi Gras.

In 1872,  groups of businessmen invented the King of Carnival. This was to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, whose colors of purple, green and gold would then serve as the official colors of the Carnival. Purple stands for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. The Grand Duke’s visit also brought the official Carnival anthem “If I Ever Cease to Love.”

The following year floats were constructed early in Louisiana. Prior to this, they were made in France and shipped over. Each year they became more colorful and glamorous than the year before. People dressed up as animals and other creatures to mock Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and also used the colorful costumes and floats to mock celebrities, political and public figures. In 1875, Governor Henry Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act, making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana.

Today, Mardi Gras is still celebrated in New Orleans. Mardi Gras krewes still fund the parade, floats and all the celebrations. This is why Marti Gras is also known as the “greatest free show on earth.” Read up on the information and explore at the Mardi Gras official website.

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