The History of Mardi Gras

A blog by Louise Balkwill

HAPPY MARDI GRAS 2019, EVERYONE!

Whether you’re partying it up in New Orleans or flipping sad pancakes in your London flat (we speak from experience), it’s great to know what the fuss is all about.

If you’re doing the sad pancake flipping thing and want to upgrade your Mardi Gras…Come down to Oliver’s Jazz Bar tonight (5th March 2019) to party NOLA style with us!

It’s no secret that New Orleans knows how to throw a party, and anyone who’s anyone knows that NOLA’s the place to be during carnival season! But when, where and why did it start?

 

Where did it come from?

The first North American Mardi Gras took place in 1699, but the tradition of Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years and may originally have been rooted in similar Pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and Lupercalia, celebrating spring and fertility. When Christianity became a hit in Rome, religious leaders liked the idea of these Pagan festivals (or rather, adopting them as new Christian traditions seemed easier than abolishing Pagan traditions altogether) and decided to invite themselves to the party.

Not the first time Christianity hijacked a pagan holiday, right? Ho ho ho…

The Pagan festival, Lupercalia – What a party!

However, Mardi Gras celebrations were famously over-indulgent and debaucherous; One school of thought is that, to justify such raucous partying, Christian leaders coined Mardi Gras a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Another is that Mardi Gras celebrations were born to propagate anti-pagan rumours, favouring the Catholic Church’s pristine image of discouraging sex, consumption of meat and hedonism prior to Lent.

 

Will we ever truly know? Either way, the first Mardi Gras celebrations must have been a sight to behold. Mardi Gras followed Christianity as it spread through Europe and eventually boarded ships to America along with new European settlers.

 

The First North American Mardi Gras

So, the first Mardi Gras in North America must have taken place in New Orleans, right? WRONG! The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718, but the first North American Mardi Gras took place 60 miles downriver from NOLA’s future site almost two decades before on the 3rd of March, 1699. French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville remembered that it was Fat Tuesday back home in France, so named his camp Point du Mardi Gras and held a small gala.

As years went by, these Mardi Gras galas moved to Mobile, a newly founded city (now Alabama), and became more and more lavish, boasting massive feasts, masks, costumes and a lot of booze.

 

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras caught on very quickly in New Orleans, and despite efforts from both the Spanish leaders (who ruled the city from 1762 – 1800) and the U.S. authorities (who ruled from 1803 onwards) to stifle the fun, ban the costumes and abolish the balls, the Mardi Gras spirit persisted.

By 1837, New Orleans had grown from a small settlement to one of America’s most hip and happening cities, and the first Mardi Gras street parade marked a further evolution of the tradition.

If you’re in New Orleans, don’t miss this year’s parades! CLICK HERE to see who’s where and when.

 

Krewes

Twenty years after the first street parade, a group of six men founded a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Combus – New Orleans’ first and oldest krewe. Their parade, themed “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost”, turned the tides of Mardi Gras’ popularity and marked the beginning of the era of krewes in New Orleans.

It was only in 1992 that New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that prohibited krewes from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. Rex immediately pledged to proceed on a welcoming and inclusive basis but, sadly, Comus, Momus and Proteus chose to stop parading rather than invite black people to join them – a symptom of the racism that is still rife in North America.

Comus is yet to return to the streets, Momus became the Knights of Chaos and Proteus returned to the street parades in 2000 after signing the non-discrimination pledge.

~

So, that’s all for now, folks! We hope you have an amazing Mardi Gras, whatever you choose to do. But if you’re in London, you may regret not coming to tonight’s Mardi Gras gig for the rest of your lives, so you should probably do that.

See you at Oliver’s Jazz Bar (Nevada Street, Greenwich, SE10 9JL) at 9pm tonight…
WE HAVE KING CAKE!

Lots of love,

The Old Jelly Rollers xx

5 Comments

  1. The Christianity that “made a hit in Rome” was a counterfeit. I would encourage you, since you’re a history buff, to look up the true nature of what occurred. The celebration you’re describing was actually a “thing” long before Christians invented Easter and Lent. Look up the origins of carnival–the true name for Mardi Gras. It was a mean “carn” festival to use up any meat in the house before your “refrigerator” of the great outdoors got too warm to keep it.

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      1. So you didn’t say “Christian leaders coined Mardi Gras a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday”? Or “When Christianity became a hit in Rome, religious leaders liked the idea of these Pagan festivals (or rather, adopting them as new Christian traditions seemed easier than abolishing Pagan traditions altogether) and decided to invite themselves to the party”?

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        1. We believe that both of the above statements in the context of the rest of the post shows that we do not support the notion of Mardi Gras being considered an originally Christian festival – Apologies if our wording has been misconstrued! I will revise it later once back from our festivities. We hope you’ve had a wonderful carnival season! X

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