While Mardi Gras has become a fixture of New Orleans culture, the holiday does not have its earliest roots in the city. The Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday tradition began centuries before in Rome as a religious holiday that marked the last day before Lent, or Ash Wednesday.
The custom spread to France where it then traveled to the French American colonies at the tail end of the 17th century. On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville set up camp about 60 miles south of New Orleans. Knowing that March 3 was being celebrated as a major holiday back in France, Bienville named the spot “Pointe du Mardi Gras.”
In 1703, the first Mardi Gras in America was celebrated in what is now Mobile. In 1704, the secret society Masque de la Mobile was founded as a precursor to today’s Mardi Gras krewes. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was established and paraded from 1711 through 1861.
New Orleans was founded in 1718, and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in the form of elegant society balls, which became the basis of today’s Mardi Gras ball tradition. In 1781, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of New Orleans’ carnival organizations.
By the late 1830s, parades of masked carriage and horseback riders processed the city streets in celebration, led by gaslight torches, or flambeaux, which can still be seen in parades today. In 1850, the first official Mardi Gras krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was formed, and the traditions of tableaux cars, or the ornate decoration of floats, masked balls and anonymous krewe members began. In 1870, the second Mardi Gras krewe, the Twelfth Knight Revelers, was formed, and the first recorded Mardi Gras throws appeared in parades.
In 1872, the Krewe of Rex, which still rolls today on Mardi Gras day, was formed as the first daytime parade krewe. In honor of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, who was visiting the city at the time, Rex introduced the Romanoff family colors of purple, green and gold as Carnival’s official colors. The next year, floats began being constructed entirely in New Orleans rather than France, and the extravagant papier-mache floats came into play.
In 1875, Governor Henry Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act, which made Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it still is today.
Mardi Gras has a long, rich history much like that of the city that hosts it year after year. It is a huge draw to New Orleans each year, and millions of revelers travel from all over the world to partake in this unique celebration, continuing a centuries-old history of fun that has no end in sight.