Mardi Gras is a celebration that has its origins in medieval European celebrations of the period between the Christian holidays of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. The traditional celebrations went through Rome and Venice until they became celebrated by the Bourbons in France as Boeuf Gras, which French colonists brought with them to Louisiana.
The First Mardi Gras
When the explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville landed with his men 60 miles south of New Orleans on March 2, 1699, it was the eve of the Boeuf Gras holidays. Therefore, he named the spot where they landed Pointe du Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found Fort Louis de Louisiane, which was located on the site of present-day Mobile, AL. It was at Fort Louis de Mobile that the first Mardi Gras festival in America was held in 1703.
A Secret Society
The very next year, 1704, a secret society called Masque de la Mobile was founded at the fort. This secret society was much like the modern-day krewes that run Mardi Gras today in New Orleans. This first secret society only lasted until 1709, when it was replaced by the Boeuf Gras Society. This was a long-running organization that paraded during Mardi Gras in Mobile from 1711 until the Civil War broke out in 1861.
The Boeuf Gras Society in Mobile put on elaborate parades. They started by parading a bull’s head through the streets that was so big it that required 16 men to push the wagon that held it. In later years, a large, living white bull was paraded through the streets, signaling the plenty of Fat Tuesday before the arrival of fasting with Lent.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans
In 1718, Bienville founded New Orleans. Mardi Gras began to be celebrated in New Orleans by the 1730s, but the first celebrations were much different than the wild festivals that New Orleans revelers know today. In fact, the early years of Mardi Gras had no parades at all. In the 1740s, the governor of Louisiana, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, started the elegant masked balls that have become a hallmark of the modern Mardi Gras celebration.
Start of Mardi Gras Parades
The first New Orleans Mardi Gras parades took place by the 1830s. These first parades were torchlit processions of masked riders on horseback and in carriages. The first famous krewe in New Orleans was the Mistick Krewe of Comus, a group founded by six men from Mobile who took their name from Milton’s character Comus. Milton was inspired to create Comus as a representation of the Greek god of revelry, an appropriate inspiration for the first New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe.
In 1870, the second famous Mardi Gras krewe was formed in New Orleans, the Twelfth Night Revelers. Around this time, newspapers began publishing advertisements announcing Mardi Gras parades by krewes in advance. The newspapers also reproduced illustrations of the parade’s floats. These illustrations were small and without much detail at first, but they began to be reproduced in full-color and vivid detail in 1886.
It was in 1872 that the first daytime parade was held. In honor of the occasion, the King of Carnival, Rex, was created. This was the year that the Mardi Gras colors of gold for power, purple for justice and green for faith were chosen. The colors were selected to honor the visit of Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff as they are the official colors of the Romanoff family. This was the same year that the Mardi Gras theme song “If Ever I Cease to Love” was chosen, and it was selected largely due to the fact that Romanoff loved the song so much.
This was also the last year that floats would be constructed in France. Starting in 1873, every Mardi Gras float in New Orleans began to be constructed in the city. Two years later, Governor Henry Warmoth made Fat Tuesday an official holiday in Louisiana.
Many other krewes have sprouted up over the years, and nearly all of them come from highly selective private organizations that completely fund their own floats. That is why Mardi Gras is sometimes referred to by locals as the “Greatest Free Show on Earth!” From its beginnings until today, Mardi Gras has been about having a good time and enjoying a blast of fun before the fasting and restrictions of Lent arrive. It will surely stay the same as long as New Orleans exists.