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Mardi Gras: A Traditional Celebration!


Celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages, Mardi Gras began long before Europeans came to the New World, but came to America in 169. French explorer, Iberville, having sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. On March 3 (the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France) of 1699, Iberville had set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. In honor of this important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras.

In the late 1700’s, masked balls and festivals were common in New Orleans while it was under French rule, but when New Orleans came under Spanish rule, the custom was banned. In 1803 New Orleans came under the U.S. flag, and the prohibition against masked festivals continued until 1823 when the Creole populace convinced the governor to permit masked balls. In 1827 street masking was again legalized.

During the early 1800’s public celebrations of Mardi Gras centered around maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. The first documented parade occurred in 1837. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras gained a bad reputation because of violent behavior attributed to maskers during the 1840’s and 50’s. The situation became so bad that the press began calling for an end to the celebration.

In 1857, the Comus organization, comprised of six New Orleans residents, saved Mardi Gras. Former members of the Cowbellians, an organization which had put on New Year’s Eve parades in Mobile since 1831, they added beauty to Mardi Gras, and demonstrated that it could be a safe and festive event. Comus was the first organization to use the term krewe to describe itself. Comus also started the customs of having a secret Carnival society, having a parade with a unifying theme with floats, and of having a ball after the parade. Comus was also the first organization to name itself after a mythological character. The celebration of Mardi Gras was interrupted by the Civil War, but in 1866 Comus returned.

Now, Mardi Gras is celebrated not just in New Orleans, though the festivities there attract people from all over the world. The tradition has flourished!

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