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HISTORY OF MARDI GRAS



The foundation of Mardi Gras was started long before the French. Some historians see a relationship to the ancient fertility rituals performed to welcome the coming of Spring, a time of rebirth. One possible early version of the Mardi Gras festival was the Lupercalia. This was a celebration around mid-February in Rome. The early Church leaders diverted the pagan practices toward a more Christian focus.

In Christian communities around the world, the 40 days preceding Easter comprise Lent, the season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations during the forty days and seven Sundays before Easter Sunday. It begins with Ash Wednesday, the day many Catholics go to church to receive the sign of the cross marked in ash on their foreheads, its purpose being to remind them of their own mortality.

For much of the country, the day before Lent is just another Tuesday, but in New Orleans this particular Tuesday represents the last gasp of revelry before a period of austerity. In practical terms, it presented an opportunity to use up all of the grease and fat in the kitchen before Lent.

Easter can be on any Sunday from March 23 to April 25, since the exact day is set to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. Mardi Gras occurs on any Tuesday from February 3 through March 9. The Gregorian calendar, setup by the Catholic Church, determines the exact day for Mardi Gras.

The celebration started in New Orleans around the seventeenth century, when Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, and Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur de Iberville founded the city. In 1699, the group set up camp 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans on the river's West Bank.

They named the site Point du Mardi Gras in recognition of the major French holiday happening on that day, March 3. The late 1700's, saw pre-Lenten balls and fetes in the infant New Orleans. The name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French.

The masked balls continued until the Spanish government took over and banned the events. The ban even continued after New Orleans became an American city in 1803. Eventually, the predominant Creole population revitalized the balls by 1823. Within the next four years, street masking was legalized.

The early Mardi Gras consisted of citizens wearing masks on foot, in carriages, and on horseback. The first documented parade in 1837 was made of a costumed revelers. The Carnival season eventually became so wild that the authorities banned street masking by the late 1830's. This was an attempt to control the civil disorder arising from this annual celebration.

This ban didn't stop the hard core celebrators. By the 1840's, a strong desire to ban all public celebrations was growing. Luckly, six young men from Mobile saved Mardi Gras. These men had been members of the Cowbellians, a group that performed New Years Eve parades in Mobile since 1831.

The six men established the Mystick Krewe of Comus, which put together the first New Orleans Carnival parade on the evening of Mardi Gras in 1857. The parade consisted of two mule-driven floats.

This promoted others to join in on this new addition to Mardi Gras. Unfortunately, the Civil War caused the celebration to loose some of its magic and public observance. The magic returned along with several other new krewes after the war.

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This page was last updated February 19, 2006.