Mardi Gras: A history beyond New Orleans

By Chuck Springston
Mardi Gras: A history beyond New Orleans

     New Orleans is the king of Mardi Gras in the U.S., but The Big Easy wasn’t the first place in the country to wear that crown.

     That honor goes either to a 1699 French-Canadian explorer’s camp about 60 miles south of present-day New Orleans or, perhaps more appropriately, to a 1703 celebration at a French settlement now known as Mobile, Ala.
     New Orleans was founded 15 years later.
     Before coming to America, Mardi Gras had been entertaining Europeans since medieval times. The celebration originated in Rome and then spread to other parts of Europe. It became an official event on the church calendar in 1582, when sanctioned by Pope Gregory XIII.
     Mardi Gras is French for “fat Tuesday,” the last day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the 40 days of Lent, a period of penance and fasting (or the abstinence of some pleasure) that ends at Easter. In the English language, the day before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday. “Shrove” is the past tense of “shrive,” meaning  “to confess” and “do penance.”
     The origin of the phrase “fat Tuesday” may have derived specifically from fatted calves eaten in early times as people prepared to give up meat during their fast for Lent. It also may have initially referred more generally to the fatty foods people consumed before their Lenten abstinence. Today it has come to mean simply a day of feasting and partying.
     Mardi Gras was carried to the future United States in an expedition led by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (1661-1706), accompanied by his brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (1680-1767). The French government asked d’Iberville, born in what is now Montreal, to explore the mouth of the Mississippi River and establish settlements in the Louisiana region. He set sail from France on Oct. 24, 1698, headed toward the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Mississippi.
     On March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras day, the expedition was camped along the Mississippi at a place d’Iberville named Point du Mardi Gras. The event was commemorated with Mass and a Latin hymn, according to records of the journey.
     D’Iberville and Bienville founded Mobile in 1702. The next year the settlement hosted the first Mardi Gras celebration on what would later become U.S. soil. Mobile also claims the country’s first Mardi Gras with a masked ball, in 1704, and parade, in 1711.
     Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718.  By the mid-to-late  1700s, the city was celebrating Mardi Gras with festivals and balls. The first documented parade of costumed revelers in New Orleans occurred in 1837, although reports of colorfully dressed groups dancing in the streets go back to at least 1827.
     The modern New Orleans parade—organized by groups known as “krewes” and featuring floats—made its first appearance in 1857.
     New Orleans may not have had the first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States, but it became home to the biggest.

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     The States: Admission to the Union

     List: First permanent settlements in each state