Blog

historical fiction books | historical romance books

It’s Mardi Gras History, Baby!

By Ana Brazil
February 21, 2023

Author’s Note: This blog post was crafted before the heinous shooting of parade goers during Sunday’s Bacchus Parade. My heart goes out to the victims, and I hope that this post celebrates some of the unifying spirit of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Right now, on Tuesday February 21st 2023 in New Orleans, people from all over the world are sporting wild costumes, begging for beads, hiding behind masks, shaking their booties, drinking and eating to euphoric excess, and generally doing all sorts of almost-sinful celebrating.

A 1939 image from ilovelibraries.org

The reason? It’s Mardi Gras, Baby!

But why would anyone want to make a festive fuss about a Tuesday in February?* It’s because the Wednesday after that Tuesday is Ash Wednesday, a holy day of fasting and prayer in the Christian church. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a forty-day period in which Christians focus on getting closer to Christ through prayer, fasting, alms giving, and giving up earthly pleasures. So it’s just human nature that if you’re giving up alcohol, meat, and dairy products (a common Lenten practice starting in the Middle Ages) for the next forty days, you’d want to party hard the day before.

So when was the first ever Mardi Gras? No one really knows, although it might have been soon after the formal establishment of Ash Wednesday in the late Eleventh Century.

We do know that the first Mardi Gras in what-would-become-America was held on (Tuesday) March 3 1699 about sixty miles down river from New Orleans. The day was “hosted” by French defenders and explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his younger brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

Three years later, Iberville founded the settlement La Mobile (which eventually became today’s Mobile, Alabama) and in 1703, La Mobile celebrated their first Mardi Gras. Mobile continues to celebrate Carnival (the celebratory season starting on Epiphany, January 6th) and Mardi Gras, and rightly claims the title of the oldest official Carnival celebration in the United States.

Getting back to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or La Nouvelle-Orléans, which Iberville’s brother Bienville established on a bend in the Mississippi River in 1718. The date of the first Mardi Gras festivities in La Nouvelle-Orléans is unrecorded, but in 1730—just twelve years after the city’s founding—French Companies of the Indies clerk Marc-Antoine Caillot recorded that he and his friends celebrated the day with singing, dancing, masking, costuming, and cross-dressing. Celebrations in the French territory quickly became more elaborate and more formal, and included organized balls, public masking and processions.  

When New Orleans became a colony of Spain in the late 1760’s, Mardi Gras merriments appear to fizzle out. Despite both countries’ Catholic heritage, New Orleanians did not commemorate the day—at least not publicly—until after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 from France (who recouped the territory from Spain in 1800).

According to many sources, including History.com,

“the new Mardi Gras tradition began in 1827 when the group of students, inspired by their experiences studying in Paris, donned masks and jester costumes and staged their own Fat Tuesday festivities.

“The parties grew more and more popular, and in 1833 a rich plantation owner named Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration. After rowdy revelers began to get violent during the 1850s, a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus staged the first large-scale, well-organized Mardi Gras parade in 1857.”

Late 19th century parade along Canal Street via rexorganization.com.

That first formal Comus parade—a nighttime procession of marching musicians and mule-driven floats—took place on Tuesday February 24, 1857. Once Comus launched, other invitation-only Krewes—all white, all male, and excluding African Americans, Jews, and Italians—had their debuts, including the Twelfth Night Revelers (1870), Momus (1872), Rex (also in 1872, and the originator of the iconic Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green), and Proteus (1882).

Although the Mardi Gras Indians (with names like Guardians of the Flame and Creole Wild West) are not krewes, their tribes may have been parading in New Orleans since before the 19th century. According to the African American Registry:

“The [Mardi Gras Indian] tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as fellow outcasts of society, and blacks circumvent some of the worst racial segregation laws by representing themselves as Indians. An appearance in the town of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1880s was said to have drawn considerable attention and increased the interest in masking Indians for Mardi Gras. When Caribbean communities started to spring up in New Orleans, their culture was incorporated into the costumes, dances, and music made by the “Indians.””

The Krewe of Venus—the first women’s parade in 1941.

In the leap year of 1896, a select group of New Orleans women formed Les Mysterieuses, the city’s first all-female Krewe. Les Mysterieuses hosted a fabulous ball, but they did not march. The first all-female Krewe to march was 1941’s the Krewe of Venus, although their public reception was marked by throws of rotten vegetables.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club–the first African American parading krewe—debuted in 1909. A year later Zulu began the tradition of distributing coconuts along their parade route, and today’s painted and glittered Zulu coconut is a prized catch.

Sometime in the early 20th century (so the story goes), Rex members began to toss goodies (aka throws) from their float to the crowd. Other krewes followed the fun, and over the years glass, crystal, and plastic beads, aluminum coins (aka doubloons), plastic cups, and painted walnuts have all rained down on the crowd. Very special throws—like the Zulu’s coconuts and the Krewe of Muses’ shoes—are gently delivered to specific parade goers.

One last tradition to share…the King Cake. Remember Epiphany on January 6th? It’s also called Kings Day, because it’s the day when the three kings finally reached the baby Jesus, bringing him frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Somewhere around the Middle Ages, Kings Day began to be celebrated with a special, round cake, and in the 1870’s—so local history goes—French immigrants brought King Cake recipes to New Orleans. No Carnival celebration is complete without a King Cake, which always has a small baby figurine stashed inside.

Finally, if you are reveling in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, don’t be surprised at midnight when the Police Superintendent and other public officials perform their ritual “sweep of the streets” down Bourbon Street.

Mardi Gras is officially over, baby! But only until next year.

2019 image via nola.com.

*Mardi Gras is a moveable feast (literally) and its date varies every year.

Ana Brazil
Written by Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.

View Ana’s PLW Profile

Share This Post

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *