There may not be a trace of French in the Deep South accent of Alabamians and New Orleans may seem to have the lock on Mardi Gras, but it all started as a Catholic holiday in the first French colonial capital in the U.S., Mobile, Alabama.
And that was fifteen years before New Orleans had its first Mardi Gras.
Even the 2005 devastation of the region due to Hurricane Katrina couldn’t stop Mobile from putting on its biggest party of the year, drawing in more visitors to the state than at any other time.
In fact, today’s Mobile Mardi Gras is the oldest in the nation, begun in 1703 the soldiers and settlers celebrated Mardi Gras beginning in 1703. France’s King Louis XIV had ordered two brother Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to ensure his nation’s claim to the territory named for him (La Louisiane) comprising present-day Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Three years later the 21-year old brother Jean established the first French colonial capital in the New World, present-day Mobile, Alabama.
A year after French soldiers completed Fort Louis there, they held the first bona fide Mardi Gras celebration, that final day of revelry and feasting before the restrained forty days which followed, those of the Lenten season leading up to Easter Sunday.
In Mobile, the actual holiday itself was soon known as the Day of the Fattest Ox (Boeuf Gras), and was marked by engorging on the fattest and best foods.
The very first masquerade ball, Le Masque de la Mobile, began the second year, in 1704. Seven years later a Mobile’s Boeuf Gras Society, the very first of the “mystic societies” which would come to work together to stage the all-city event in later centuries. That first one was formed to create a massive paper ox head and parade it through the fledgling village on a cart.
During the 1700s, the British and then the Spanish took control of Mobile. The sudden restriction placed there by them on Africans who were not slaves and those of mixed Caucasian-African backgrounds led most of them to leave and resettle in New Orleans.
The Spanish influence did change Mardi Gras, incorporating their culture’s torchlight parades. The English introduced the Anglican custom of large feasts with the richest possible foods to be consumed on the last day before Lent began.
There are “mystic societies” formed around various professional or social associations, the first formed a year after the first celebration, some ceasing to exist after the Civil War and new ones rising in the last half-century.
The oldest continuous one began imn 1867, Mobile’s Order of Myths Society, which is marked by the symbolism of the partying (“Folly”) warding off the end of life (“Death”).
One of the most unusual ones was formed in 1831, by a Swedish-American settler Michael Krafft, who migrated to Mobile from Pennsylvania. In the Swedish custom of making loud noises to welcome in the New Year, he began ringing cowbells and marching with friends carrying rakes, pitchforks, hoes and other farm implements.
A year later they repeated their parade but as part of the official Mardi Gras celebration, and called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, using highfaluting French-sounding words in humor. Although they died out, the society was later revived.
The Civil War seemed to have done in the Mobile Mardi Gras parade, but two years after it ended, one local by the name of Joe Cain revived the tradition of a parade, riding through town with six fellow ex-Confederate solders on a wagon carrying charcoal.
Making up a mythical figure known as “Chief Slacabamorinico,” he came to lead parades. A century later, a day was set aside in Mobile to honor him for returning the tradition; always celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, its known as Joe Cain Day. And there is still a traditional Chief Slacabamorinico to led the parade.
Today, there are forty or so different mystic societies. At one time, membership was reliant on secrecy and this required the wearing of masks to disguise one’s identity. Revealing it were grounds for permanent dismissal.
While some are still restricted based on family or school connections, the consortium of societies provide the fabric for civic works as well as professional networking. In 1890, the first Jewish mystic society formed. In 1894, the first African-American one was created. In 1980, the Order of Osiris, composed of gay and lesbian society members, was founded.
Mobile’s Mardi Gras season parallels an old-fashioned custom that has now largely disappeared, the “social season” which began along with the holiday season by which time many wealthy families returned to cities or large towns from their summer places in the cooler mountains, countryside or shore.
The Mardi Gras season in Mobile begins at different points, depending on the mystic society, including New Year’s Eve parties and the “Camellia Ball,” at which young women, the daughters of the elite class made their first appearance at formal social events.
All of it culminates on “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of socializing with a vengeance. For two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, the various societies hold their parades on different days, but all join in the final all-day parade on the last day.
Like New Orleans Mardi Gras, glass and plastic beads, and “doubloons,” plastic stamped coins in the tri-colors of the holiday (green, purple and “gold” – although many such trinkets appear more orange) are thrown by the “crewes” of each society’s floats, but in Mobile there’s also the custom, begun in the 1950s, of throwing moon pies, those graham-cracker flavored-marshmallow chocolate covered treats.
Another distinction between Mobile and New Orleans are the strict rules by which the public are held. Although Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday, is set aside for family celebrations with schools being closed, children are present at the big event and none of the wild behavior, extreme intoxication and showing off of breasts or genitals are permitted. Nor are the societies permitted to throw unwrapped food, boxes or condoms, as some do in New Orleans.
While society members on the floats are expected to remain masked, it is only from nine in the morning until nine at night that spectators can cover their faces, an ordinance meant to rid the event of the earlier problem of masked bandits who would swoop through crowds and avoid being identified and to also disassociate any local memories of the once-active Ku Klux Klan. At one point in the 19th century, even free African-Americans were prohibited from gathering in groups for a ball or party, while those of mixed-race were allowed the same right as white people.
At the end of the night, each society holds a highly formal ball where, if not in costume, guests are expected to wear long, formal gowns and white-tie and tails. It also marks the annual crowning of “King Felix,” to rule over the succeeding Mobile Mardi Gras.
The old Spanish custom of torch-parades and lighting the streets and floats with burning flames has given way to electric-lights.
Even though Mobile’s early French population rapidly inter-married with Anglo, Spanish, African and other groups within the growing port city, and its Catholic customs quickly faded under a Protestant majority, Mobile takes the arrival of Ash Wednesday seriously.
At the stroke of midnight in Mobile, all drinking, dancing and partying instantly ceases. People are expected to quietly but quickly head home.
The Mobile city departments move into action, clearing the streets of any debris or signs of parades or parties. Social custom also dictates that no beads be seen during the days of Lent.
And yet, while the French-American origins of the holiday may now seem quaintly unimportant and largely forgotten, one need not look that far away, be it on a parade float, the window of a bake shop selling King Cake in the tri-colors of purple, gold and green, the invitation to a mystic society masquerade ball or on the paper cornice decorations that will end up in the trash truck on Ash Wednesday to see it.
It’s recalled by the simple and familiar Fleur de Lis, the ancient symbol of Mobile’s founding culture by the King of France, a long three centuries ago when it was that nation’s French capital city of America.
- The Mystique of Mardi Gras Masks (froomzblog.com)
- Happy Mardi Gras! (frenchtwistedwoman.com)
- Mardi Gras parade rolls in Gulf Shores (al.com)
- Mardi Gras weather mess might bring postponements, but Fat Tuesday has never been outright canceled (al.com)
- Laissez les bon temps rouler! (lsufamily.wordpress.com)
- This History of Mardi Gras (stlouisanshenanigans.wordpress.com)
- Celebrate Mardi Gras! (bluemountain.com)