The history behind Mardi Gras

(Courtesy of Town & Country Magazine)(Courtesy of Town & Country Magazine)

Arynn Williams, Correspondent

If you’re particularly devout, or just a fan of holidays, you might already be aware that Easter is on April 12th this year. Exactly forty-six days before that, though, is Fat Tuesday–or Mardi Gras. The festival is always the day before Ash Wednesday, the last hurrah before Lent.

The name Mardi Gras refers to the tradition of feasting before the start of Lent, which typically involves some fasting. In America, the tradition of overindulging in food isn’t as common of a celebration as parties, parades, and king cake. What shaped the American tradition of this French-named holiday, though?

As we are all currently in Alabama, many of you might be aware that while Mardi Gras is thought of as a Louisiana tradition, its American roots are actually in Mobile. The holiday was first celebrated in Mobile in 1703, over a decade before New Orleans was established. It would be nearly a century before Mardi Gras celebrations began to take the shape we recognize today. At the time, the parades were smaller and the parties were aimed exclusively towards the elite. By the mid-1800s, the carnival theme of Mardi Gras began to take form, with masked balls being held and floats added to the parades. This has further evolved into the celebrations we have today, which often start long before actual Mardi Gras and end on the holiday itself. Such a schedule allows for multiple parades and parties to be hosted by various “krewes”, or social organizations in charge of hosting events during the season.

A lot of Mardi Gras’ American history is shrouded in myth and legend. There’s no way to know how, when, or why beaded necklaces in particular have become so commonplace in Mardi Gras parades. Nor is there any specific explanation for king cake, though its symbolism has obvious origins in the Christian faith. While the holiday takes its name and plenty of its traditions from France, there is no doubt it has evolved into a celebration all of its own over the years, melding various cultures together to form the fun and festive event it’s known as today.

Mardi Gras celebrations are not limited to New Orleans, of course. Plenty of countries across the country, mostly those established by the French, host Mardi Gras events annually. Here in Alabama the biggest event is in Mobile, which boasts that it is the true birthplace of the holiday. Mobile’s series of parades and parties attract nearly a million festive partygoers each year. As well, the city has its own museum dedicated to preserving the history of the American version of Mardi Gras. During the two weeks of celebration prior to Fat Tuesday, you might want to check out the Mobile Carnival Museum and let it convince you that Mobile really is the birthplace of Mardi Gras! If you find yourself away from both Alabama and Louisiana next Mardi Gras, there are also sizable celebrations in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and Missouri, all in towns with a history of French colonization.

Though Mardi Gras has evolved over the years from its origins as Fat Tuesday, a feasting day, into a day of revelry, you can still overindulge in some king cake. Good luck finding the trinket inside!

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