Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, as it’s known in the United States, is best known today for its carnival atmosphere complete with beads, booze and raucous partying. But did you know that the Mardi Gras tradition dates back over three centuries?
Early History of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras origins can be traced back to medieval Europe where the French celebration of the Christian Epiphany or Ash Wednesday was known as Bouef Gras or ‘fatted calf’.
It wasn’t until 1699 when French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville discovered a plot of land just 60 miles south of New Orleans that he dubbed, “Pointe Du Mardi Gras” which gives the tradition its namesake. Three years later, Bienville established Fort Louis de la Louisiane, modern-day Mobile, and in 1703 celebrated the very first Mardi Gras. The celebration grew with the institution of the Masque de la Mobile secret society which would parade through the city pushing a massive bulls head every Mardi Gras from 1711 through 1861.
New Orleans Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras in New Orleans didn’t begin until 1718 and was a popular celebration by the 1730s, but not with the carnival atmosphere that we would recognize today. In the 1740s Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, began hosting elegant balls, which have become the blueprint for the celebrations we see today.
The earliest record of the carnival aspect of Mardi Gras is in 1781 which is the year the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was established along with hundreds of other carnival organizations in New Orleans.
The holiday really took shape in the 1830’s which began the street procession and popular use of masks to celebrate. Gaslight torches or flambeux lit the way for Mardi Gras Krew members to the celebrate the tradition.
In the 1870’s Mardi Gras was a popular celebration that was announced in newspapers and even warranted its own celebration edition complete with lithographs of the parades fantastical float designs. In 1872 the traditional purple, green and gold colors were introduced as an honor to the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff.
In 1875 the Mardis Gras Act was signed into law which made the celebration a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it remains to this day.