The saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” might be a popular catch-phrase, but relative to the history of Mardi Gras it is not a phrase so much as a beginning. It seems in ancient Rome, when the early church leaders accepted Christianity, they felt it would be better to include some of the pagan rituals as part of the new faith rather than to ignore or abolish them altogether. Thus, the Christian interpretation of Lupercalia (a circus like festival preceding Lent) is similar to today’s Mardi Gras, filled with galas, parades, the donning of masks and the ever popular bead throwing.
Although Mardi Gras had been celebrated in Paris, France since the middle ages, it did not become part of American culture until the French explorer, d’Iberville, introduced it to the America’s. Throughout the centuries many changes took place, where pre-Lenten masked balls and festivals were common during the French rule in New Orleans; however, when the Spanish ruled New Orleans, Mardi Gras was banned, and its absence continued even under the U.S. flag, until 1823. In 1827, the Governor was pressured to permit masked balls by many, especially the Creole population, and street masking was again legal. Mardi Gras was however temporarily halted during the years of the Civil War, returning in 1866.
Although Mardi Gras celebrations occurred since the early 1800’s, it was not until 1837 when an official documentation of a Mardi Gras parade was noted. Not everyone was happy though. Mardi Gras gained an unsavory reputation in the 1840’s and 50’s, and soon, with the aid of the press there was a call to abolish Mardi Gras altogether.
The Comus organization, formed by six men who were part of the Cowbellians (responsible for putting on New Years’ Eve parades in Mobile, Alabama) stepped in to save Mardi Gras. They brought order, beauty and safety to the previously unruly event, and eventually known as the krewe. Comus are mythological characters.
It is also said that the krewe began a secret Carnival Society, and is responsible for establishing a theme for each Mardi Gras, be it floats or the masked ball(s) that follow.
There has been some debate as to whether Mardi Gras actually began in New Orleans, or in Mobile, Alabama. You might say it actually began in both places, because the camp settled in 1699, by the French, named it Pointe du Mardi Gras. It was actually located in the Mississippi/Alabama/Louisiana Delta Gulf Coast Region. It would therefore seem that all three states with cities located along the gulf coast could claim to be the beginning point.
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who established the French fort and settlement, named it Mobile, although there is a stone marker at the end of U.S. 1 Highway in Louisiana, marketing the spot where the first celebration of Mardi Gras took place. Mobile was formally made the capital of the French province of the Lousianne Territories, and remained so until its abandonment in 1711.
During this time Masque De La Mobile was celebrated until 1709, and was widely considered by many scholars to be the very first organized celebration of Mardi gras in the New World.
It was not until 1718, when Pierre Le Moyne’s brother, Jean-Baptiste founded the port colony of Nouvelle Orle’ans (New Orleans). The French Louisiana Capital was then moved to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1720, and eventually is relocated to New Orleans in 1722.
The traditional Mardi Gras colors were selected in 1872, when the Grand Duke, Alexis Romanoff of Russia, was given the honor of picking them. The Grand Duke chose the same colors: Purple, Green and Gold for the House of Romanoff as well.
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday is the last day of feasting before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, although when we speak of Mardi Gras most people think it is a week of festivities preceding Lent, when in actuality celebrations often begin 12 days after Christmas, leading up to Ash Wednesday.
Another popular notion is that Mardi Gras only occurs in New Orleans. Not so, as there are many cities and even countries that celebrate Mardi Gras.
Granville, France’ Mardi Gras Carnival has been celebrated since 1872, when a feast was prepared before local fishermen sailed away. 2010 marks the 136th carnaval, which is slated to be bigger and better than ever. This four-day event is a family affair with a variety of activities, and lots of fun for everyone.
You may not have heard of Granville, but many are familiar with Normandy, which is steeped in historical significance all the way back to 1066, when Edward the Confessor’s cousin, William, sailed for England and triumphed in what is referred to as the Norman conquest. Soon after the conquest, William was crowned King of England.
Rio de Janeiro’s Mardi Gras is billed as the world’s most elaborate Carnival location featuring its Samba Drama parades. In Paris, you will hear Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler, as they celebrate Mardi Gras Parisian style, and in New Orleans its translation Let the Good Times Roll is heard throughout the French Quarter where Mardi Gras still ranks as one of the top tourism events in the United States. While not nearly as large or well known as the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration, Galveston, Texas has a rich Mardi Gras tradition, going back to 1867, when Shakespeare’s King Henry IV was showcased. However, rebel-rousing began long before their Mardi Gras festivities, when Jean Lafitte and his band of pirates had a strong hold in Galveston before the US Navy told them to take a swim or else.
Ice castles instead of beads; in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, their winter carnaval, the third largest in the world, coincides with Mardi Gras and draws close to a million people. Travel further north to Europe and you might experience Fasching, which is akin to Mardi Gras, in many German cities such as Munich, Cologne and Mainz; however, Fat Tuesday is not the big day here; it is Rose Monday, also known as Rosenmontag.
No matter the city, no matter the state, no matter the country, the sentiment is the same. It is a celebration steeped in religious and cultural traditions, and a sure way to let loose before the Lenten season begins. Be sure to make your hotel reservations early though, because no matter where you celebrate Mardi Gras, in all likelihood there may be no room at the inn.
One last note: So what does Mardi Gras King Cake taste like? This pastry cake, featuring the colors of Mardi Gras; purple, green and gold, is a grand tradition. A small plastic baby doll is inserted into the cake before baking, and the person who gets the slice with the baby is not only rewarded with good ‘luck’ but is also responsible for bringing King Cake to the next Mardi Gras festivity. To get a recipe of this colorful cake, visit: