Mardi Gras is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, which is still the tradition today. Along with Christianity, Mardi Gras spread from Rome to other European countries, including France, Germany, Spain and England.
Mardi Gras came to North America as a French Catholic tradition by the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Sent by King Louis XIV to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane (now Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and part of eastern Texas.), Iberville made camp just 60 miles south of where New Orleans which was named “Pointe du Mardi Gras” because it was the night before the festive holiday in 1699. Bienville, himself, found the settlement of Mobile, AL in 1702 which became the first capital of French Louisiana and was named “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” in which a year later the the first America’s Mardi Gras was celebrated.
In 1718, Bienville established New Orleans and just over a decade later Mardi Gras was celebrated publicly in New Orleans. It wasn’t until the 1740’s in which Louisiana’s governor established elegant society balls, which is now the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls today.
By the end of the 1830s, New Orleans was holding parades of with carriages and horseback riders in masks. The first account of Mardi Gras “throws” was not recorded until 1870. In 1875, the Governor of Louisiana signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” which made Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana, which is still enacted today.
The colors associated with Mardi Gras are green, gold, and purple. These colors were first specified by the Rex organization during the inaugural parade in 1872. It is unknown why these colors were chosen, but some say that they were chosen for their aesthetic appeal, not for symbolism. The Rex organization has declared that the colors symbolize justice, power, and faith. The Rex organization is a New Orleans Carnival krewe (social society) that stages one of the city’s most celebrated parades on Mardi Gras. They have held more parades than any other parading organization in New Orleans. Rex is Latin for King and someone is chose as The king of Carnival. The krewe is considered an Old Line Krewe (the first krewes in New Orleans), along with Mistick Krewe of Comus, Knights of Momus, and Krewe of Proteus.
Other places throughout the US where Mardi Gras is a celebrated tradition:
- Alabama: Mobile, Demopoli
- Arkansas: Eureka Spring
- California: San Francisco, San Diego, San Luis Obispo
- Florida: Pensacola, Hollywood, Orlando, Tampa
- Louisiana: New Orleans, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Houma, Lafayette, Lake Charles, New Roads, Shreveport, Courir de Mardi Gras, etc.
- Michigan: Detroit
- Mississippi: Gulf Coast (Biloxi), Central MS (Vicksburg)
- Missouri: St. Louis
- Oklahoma: Tulsa
- Oregon: Portland
- Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
- Texas: Galveston, Port Arthur, Dallas
- Wisconsin: La Crosse