The History: How Mardi Gras Made it to SETX
The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back to 17th and 18th century medieval Europe, but the holiday’s roots are almost just as old on this side of the pond. French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville made landfall sixty miles south of New Orleans (which he also founded) on the eve of the festive holiday in 1699, and aptly named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” Even though Mardi Gras is now associated with New Orleans, the very first Mardi Gras celebration was held at “Fort Louis de la Louisiane,” present-day Mobile, in 1703.
The very next year, the first secret society, Masque de La Mobile, was formed. It was similar to our current Mardi Gras krewes, meaning that membership was limited, and the floats and festivities were completely funded by the members. This lasted for five years, ending in 1709. In 1710, the “Boeuf Gras Society” was formed, and paraded in the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Louisiane (Mobile, Alabama) until 1861. The original procession was led with a huge bull’s head pushed along on wheels by sixteen men, but was later changed to an actual bull draped in white, signaling the coming of the Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.
New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville, and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not the way we think of today. The early celebrations consisted of elegant society balls hosted by the Louisiana governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, which became the model for the Mardi Gras balls we know today.
The earliest reference to Mardi Gras “Carnival” appears in 1781, which is also the year the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was formed, leading hundreds of other clubs and carnival organizations to be formed in New Orleans. For reference, this is also the year of the Battle of Yorktown in the American Colonies, which effectively ended the American Revolution. The Louisiana Purchase did not occur until 1803.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans had embraced the more flamboyant practices we picture, including maskers with carriages, horseback riders, dazzling gaslight torches or “flambeaux,” and an all-around air of romance and festivity. Magic and mystery became synonymous with Mardi Gras in 1856, when six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, leading processions with dazzling floats known as tableaux cars and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.
In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers was formed, and had the first recorded account of Mardi Gras “throws,” consisting of trinkets, beads, and other festive items. Two years later, the famous Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green were introduced when Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff and his family came over from Russia to participate in the festivities. Purple, gold, and green were the Romanov family colors, symbolizing justice, power, and faith and became Carnival’s official colors.
The following year, the floats and costumes began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France, and by 1785, Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth signed “The Mardi Gras Act,” making Fat Tuesday an official holiday in Louisiana.
Mardi Gras celebrations take place leading up this day all along the southern part of the United States. Southeast Texas joined in the festivities February of 1993 when eighteen non-profit organizations came together in Port Arthur, Texas for a highly successful event. The celebration was moved to its new home in Beaumont in 2019, and after a sorely missed hiatus, returned to much anticipation for its second season in 2022.