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Mardi Gras Through The Years

Caitlin Plummer |
March 3, 2014 | 4:49 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Mardi Gras festivities are known for involving elaborate masks, but some participants paint their faces instead. (DreamPlanGo/Twitter)
Mardi Gras festivities are known for involving elaborate masks, but some participants paint their faces instead. (DreamPlanGo/Twitter)
Though the phrase “Mardi Gras” generally conjures up visions of cheaply colored beads from the nearest party store, crazy masks and drunken shenanigans, at its roots it is a Catholic holiday. Also known as "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras is a celebration before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

The first traces of Mardi Gras can be found in Medieval Europe during the 1600s and 1700s under the name “Boeuf Gras,” or “Fatted Ox” in French, as the fatted ox is the symbol of the last meal eaten before Lent. However, the tradition did not surface in North America until 1699. On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville named a piece of land about 60 miles south of present day New Orleans “Pointe du Mardi Gras” after realizing his group’s arrival from Paris landed on the day before the popular holiday. Three years later, Beinville founded Fort Louis de la Mobile, currently Mobile, Ala., which humbly celebrated America’s first Mardi Gras in 1704.

Beinville went on to found New Orleans in 1718, but it wasn’t until the 1730s that the holiday was actually celebrated in the city. However, the festivities didn’t include the parades and elegant balls that come to mind today, because such celebrations were not yet associated with Mardi Gras. The first of the holiday's society balls occurred in the 1740s, hosted by Louisiana’s then governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil. Most of these balls have remained a formal and private affair for Mardi Gras Krewes, which are organizations that contribute to the festivities by putting on balls or parades in conjunction with the holiday. However, the Ball Tableau is used to formally introduce debutantes into society. Other traditions, such as the carnivals associated with Mardi Gras, on the other hand, have no mention in any records until 1781.

Some time after Spanish governors began to rule Louisiana in 1766, the extravagant balls were banned, a prohibition that continued even after New Orleans became an American city in 1803. By 1823, however, the people convinced the American governor to allow the balls once again and the tradition continued to flourish.

Mardi Gras quickly evolved into an event with activities closely reflecting the festivities seen today, although many were more controversial than enjoyable. In 1837, the first masked Mardi Gras parade took place. New Orleans began to consistently hold parades featuring masked citizens in carriages or on horseback to celebrate the holiday. Gaslit torches called “flambeaux” lined the processions, creating an atmosphere of excitement and romance. However, the violent tendencies of the participants in these processions over the next 20 years influenced the media to encourage an end to Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras was arguably saved from this fate in 1856 when six anonymous men in Mobile created the first Mardi Gras Krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which beautified the celebration and proved the holiday could be enjoyed safely. This group also introduced the first Mardi Gras Krewe tableaux cars, or floats, to the parades.

Just under 15 years later, the second Krewe of Mardi Gras was established, along with the first mention of “throws,” also known as the infamous Mardi Gras beads. Soon newspapers featured announcements of Mardi Gras events so locals could plan their festivities accordingly. Then, in 1872, a coalition of businessmen invented the concept of a King of Carnival to oversee the first parade during the day. It was also the year the Russian Grand Duke, Alexis Romanoff, visited the festivities, and in his honor the Romanoff’s colors of purple, green and gold were declared the holiday’s official colors and “If I Ever Cease To Love” was introduced as the Mardi Gras anthem, a consequence of the Duke’s partiality to the song.

The holiday was officially cemented as a part of New Orleans culture in 1875, when Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” declaring Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana. The Mardi Gras Act still stands today, and the festivities and various parades have stayed completely free of charge for attendants. This cultural significance and accessibility make the Mardi Gras festival a can’t-miss event for locals and tourists in New Orleans in the spring.


Reach Staff Writer Caitlin Plummer here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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