Beads and bourbon, floats and costumes, revelry and risque behavior – all part of the history of Mardi Gras and the things that first come to mind for most of us when we think about Mardi Gras. But there’s a lot more to this originally religious celebration than that.
So let’s delve into the history of Mardi Gras, especially the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
A Brief History of Mardi Gras
In very broad strokes, here’s a quick rundown of the origin and history of Mardi Gras.
Where Did Mardi Gras Come From?
To answer the question “Where did Mardi Gras originally come from?” we have to go back – way back – well over 3,000 years. That takes us back to the Israelites’ 40-year wandering in the desert before (and as preparation for) entering into the Promised Land.
Then we move forward a little over 1,000 years to Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness after His baptism before entering upon his public ministry. This was, as we all know, a period of fasting and testing – of preparation – before He began the work that would ultimately usher in the Kingdom.
So that period of 40 years, but especially days, is important, and that brings us to Lent. This is a 40-day period (excepting Sundays) that runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter. It’s the Church’s prescribed time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving running up to Easter – a time of penitential preparation for the highest Holy Day in the Christian calendar. Naturally, it parallels Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness.
But the Church’s liturgical calendar isn’t all fasting and gloom. It has, rather, an undulating rhythm of fast followed by feast followed by fast followed by a feast and so on and on.
And that, really, is the history of Mardi Gras in brief. It’s the celebration within a particular culture that has organically grown up around the last opportunity for a feast before the long fast of Lent – the last big blowout till Christians have to do without until Easter.
This brings us to Fat Tuesday and this pre-Lenten celebration in New Orleans.
Why Is Mardi Gras Celebrated in New Orleans?
First, though, we need to look at New Orleans’ distinct cultural and ethnic mix to understand why the phenomenon of Mardi Gras grew up there the way it did.
Broadly and imperfectly, New Orleans consists primarily of a Catholic, French-speaking Creole culture. And here are home of major elements that have played a part in its cluttered history . . .
The first inhabitants of the New Orleans area were, of course, Native Americans. But what we know as New Orleans didn’t really get its start until the expulsion of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Between 1755 and 1764, the British deported more than 11,000 of these French settlers from their northern home after acquiring control of the region as a result of their military campaign against New France. These French Acadians were deported to various points in the Thirteen Colonies. But many of them found Louisiana, especially the area west of New Orleans, more to their liking and so eventually migrated there. French was the dominant language in the area, and the name Acadian was in time corrupted to Cajun.
Then, in 1762 and 1763, France signed treaties that ceded Louisiana to Spain. So New Orleans became a Spanish city engaging in a brisk trade with Cuba and Mexico. An interesting development of Spanish rule was that under Spanish custom and law there was a free class of people of color. And this meant that the area felt a greater influence by people of African origin, including those who came to New Orleans by way of the Caribbean islands.
By 1803 Louisiana had reverted to the French who sold it to the United States in that year as part of the Louisiana purchase. During the first part of the nineteenth century, when most of the residents spoke French, New Orleans was the wealthiest and third-largest city in the nation, shipping vast quantities of goods and produce to Europe, South America, and the Caribbean. Though thousands of slaves were bought and sold there, the free Black community was thriving.
At the beginning of the Civil War, New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy but soon fell to Union troops. After Emancipation, people of color played an important role in political processes till the 1970s.
The twentieth century saw much low-lying swampland reclaimed, along with the advent of the famous electric streetcars and the birth of jazz. After World War II, racial tensions increased, many affluent white citizens fled, and the city was damaged by several hurricanes. But New Orleans survived and thrived to become a major tourist destination – with unique customs and celebrations.
Out of this stew of seeming cultural contradictions that were eventually reconciled and blended emerged a unique, unrepeatable cultural flavor. This provided the basis for the history of Mardi Gras as we know it today.
When Did Mardi Gras Start in New Orleans?
No history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans would be complete without an examination of how and when it began there, especially concerning the “krewes”.
Probably the most quintessentially New Orleans celebration, Mardi Gras (also known as Carnival) has evolved significantly throughout its long history. But this much has remained constant: “The New Orleans’ celebration of Mardi Gras begins on January 6 – or the Twelfth Night, as it occurs 12 days after Christmas – through Fat Tuesday (the literal French translation of Mardi Gras). The date of Fat Tuesday changes from year to year based on when the Christian holiday Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent, occurs.”
When it comes to the history of this festival, its origins can be found in Medieval Europe, eventually expanding to France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “Later, that expansion brought Carnival celebrations to the French colonies, including what would become Louisiana and New Orleans. Boeuf Gras, as it was originally called, first landed in the US via the French settlement Fort Louis de la Mobile, which held the first Mardi Gras in America in 1703.
“The French established the city of New Orleans in 1718, and Mardi Gras had become ingrained in the city’s culture by the 1730s. However, the earliest instances of Mardi Gras in New Orleans looked vastly different compared to today.
“By 1873, Mardi Gras float construction had moved from France to New Orleans, and krewes began using floats as a way to express opinions and mock public officials and hot-button topics of the day. Mardi Gras became an official holiday with the signing of the “Mardi Gras Act” in Louisiana in 1875.”
Mardi Gras Krewes
One of the characteristic features of Mardi Gras is the floats sponsored and created by the variou9s krewes. And it all came about on this wise . . .
“The late 1830s saw the dawn of street processions that featured masked revelers pulled in carriages or on horseback and flambeaux, or bearers of gaslight torches that lit the way for night-time krewes. Any collection of Mardi Gras revelers is known as a “krewe,” and they specifically take part in parades and processions during carnival season. The first Mardi Gras krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, formed in 1856 and became known for its eye-catching floats, masked balls, and anonymity for krewe members.
“The second Mardi Gras krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, formed in 1870 and was the first krewe to introduce Mardi Gras “throws.” In 1872, a group of local businessmen organized the first daytime parade, presided over by Rex, the “King of Carnival,” in honor of Russian Grand Duke Alexei Romanoff, who was visiting the city. In the grand duke’s honor, the businessmen adopted the Romanoff family colors – purple, green, and gold – as the official colors of Mardi Gras.
“Mardi Gras krewes began organizing among various communities, such as the Tramps, the forerunner of the all-African American Krewe of Zulu, which launched in 1909. The first all-female krewe, Les Mysterieuses, formed in 1896, and the Krewe of Iris, the oldest all-female krewe still rolling today, first appeared in 1917.”
Today, there are more than 50 krewes in New Orleans, and that number just keeps growing.
History and Traditions of Mardi Gras
Now, let’s take a look at some traditional history of Mardi Gras, specifically Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans. So if you’ve ever asked, “What are some Mardi Gras Traditions?” here ya go . . .
History of Mardi Gras Krewes and Krewes Today
We’ve already examined krewes at some length, but here’s a little more . . .
“Mardi Gras krewes are social organizations that host balls or put on parades each carnival season. Some krewes have open membership, while others are highly exclusive or secretive. They can be organized by neighborhood, interest, or involvement in the community. Historically, krewes were all male, but the first all-female krewes began to appear in the early 1900s. The two best-known krewes that parade on Mardi Gras are the Krewe of Rex and the Krewe of Zulu.”
History of Mardi Gras Colors
The official colors are purple, green, and gold, as seen in Mardi Gras traditional costumes. The Krewe of Rex chose these colors in 1872 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich. “The krewe asked the people of New Orleans to display the colors, which represent justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold), on Mardi Gras.”
History of Mardi Gras Parades
“Though pre-Lenten Mardi Gras balls and parties were held in New Orleans as early as the mid-1700s, the first documented parade in the city did not occur until 1837. This first parade more resembled a procession of revelers in costume than it did the large, organized parades of today.” Now, 75 (or more) parades typically process through greater New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and the thousands of people in attendance throng the streets to revel and dance.
Mardi Gras Mask Tradition
Masks are an integral part of Mardi Gras, but they were originally worn for reasons you might not suspect. “In the early days of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, participants wore masks to escape social constraints and allow themselves to be free to mingle with whomever they chose. Many krewes wore masks to keep their identities secret. Today, any person who rides on a float during a Mardi Gras parade, other than celebrities or krewe royalty, is required by law to disguise his or her face.”
Mardi Gras Traditions: Beads and Doubloons
And what would Mardi Gras be without the ubiquitous beads and doubloons thrown from floats?
“Beads have been thrown from floats since the very first parades rolled down the streets of New Orleans. These first beads were made of glass, but krewes began throwing plastic beads in the mid-20th century. Doubloons were first thrown by the Krewe of Rex in 1960. These coins featured the krewe’s founding date, emblem, and name on one side, and the current year and theme of the parade on the other side. The doubloons were so popular that each krewe created its own.”
History of Mardi Gras Throws
Similarly, the throw – a themed object or trinket thrown from floats – is another important part of the celebration. Typically, krewes have their own signature (often hand-decorated) throws, for example,
But the most coveted of all the Mardi Gras throws is the Zulu coconut (or golden nugget). “Typically, the meat is removed from the coconuts and they are hand-painted by float riders before being tossed into the crowds below. Coconuts have been slightly controversial through the years. They were banned in 1988 due to insurance issues, but were later allowed again to continue the tradition.”
Mardi Gras Traditions: Food
When it comes to the history of Mardi Gras and traditions, food is right up there. In fact, food might be one of the best parts of Mardi Gras. With that being said, we definitely need to take a look at the history of Mardi Gras king cake.
“The concept of a king cake comes from the French galette des rois. Today, New Orleans’ king cakes look nothing like their French counterparts. Traditional New Orleans king cakes are decorated with purple, green, and gold sugar icing. They may be plain or filled with fruit, pecans, or cream cheese. A plastic baby is placed inside the cake, and tradition dictates that whoever is given the piece with the baby inside must buy the next cake or throw the next party. Over 500,000 king cakes are sold in New Orleans each year, and at least 50,000 are shipped out of state.”
All these would be considered part of the history of Mardi Gras traditions, but there are more, many more. There are, for example, street bands, Mardi Gras flambeaux, Mardi Gras royalty, and Mardi Gras Indians, to name only a few.
Brief Recap of and Final Word on the History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Ultimately, though other countries have Carnival, Mardi Gras is a unique New Orleans phenomenon. In fact, Louisiana is the only state in the US where Mardi Gras is an official legal holiday.
After all . . .
“The first American Mardi Gras took place on March 3, 1699, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed near present-day New Orleans, Louisiana. They held a small celebration and dubbed their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras.
“In the decades that followed, New Orleans and other French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties, masked balls, and lavish dinners. When the Spanish took control of New Orleans, however, they abolished these rowdy rituals, and the bans remained in force until Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812.
“On Mardi Gras in 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets of New Orleans, emulating the revelry they’d observed while visiting Paris. Ten years later, the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, a tradition that continues to this day.”
The history of Mardi Gras continues to evolve and seemingly will never die. Unfortunately, this year, in 2021, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, parades in New Orleans have been canceled. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still celebrate Mardi Gras.
Just be sure to get all your party supplies like bandanas and handkerchiefs for throws, as well as masks for safety, at the one-stop-shop that offers significant discounts every day: WholesaleForEveryone.com.