The historical origins of Mardi Gras are much debated, but many of its traditions seem to have their roots in early Celtic Christian rituals in ancient Gaul, Ireland, and Scotland—which, in turn, seem to have even earlier Greek antecedents.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a celebration of life’s excesses before the austere self-sacrifices of the Christian season of Lent. It receives its name from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of the Winter Carnival that followed the Twelfth Night, or Epiphany.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, and includes a much more proscribed lifestyle for faithful Christian families—traditionally a season of concerted fasting and asceticism. The day prior to Ash Wednesday, is thus, the final hurrah and excesses frowned upon at any other time of the year are all too often embraced or even exulted.
The ancient Mardi Gras tradition was first brought to the New World by the French, and it became a vital component of the culture settlers established along the Gulf Coast. Though it is most often associated with the city of New Orleans, all throughout the region, festive carousers celebrate during the two weeks before the beginning of Lent with parades, balls, masquerades, street dances, concerts, amusements, jocularity, and merry banquets.
On April 9, 1682, French explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, claimed the region from where the Mississippi drained into the ocean all the way to Pensacola Bay in the name of King Louis XIV of France. Spanish explorers had already discovered the region, but abandoned it when they failed to discover gold.
La Salle attempted to return to the region two years later, but ended up in Texas instead. He spent the next two years searching for his discovery—a search that ended when his men finally murdered him.
War prevented France from continuing its colonization efforts until 1697. King Louis XIV then commissioned a Canadian, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur D’Iberville, to secure a colony and French interests in the region. Iberville’s flotilla finally landed in February on Ship Island, twelve miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and established his headquarters on the site of present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The following spring, he built a fort near present-day Phoenix, Louisiana—the first permanent French colony on the Gulf Coast.
But ongoing wars and other concerns kept the attentions of King Louis away from the New World. When he died in 1715, he was succeeded by his five-year-old great grandson in name, and in practice by Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who served as Regent for the young king. One of the Regent’s friends was John Law, who devised a get-rich-quick strategy of promoting Louisiana’s riches. The scheme virtually bankrupted France, but not before the dramatic expansion of the colony, and the founding of New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, and Pensacola in the spring of 1718.
Progress in the new towns was slow, but Mardi Gras festivities are believed to have begun in their earliest days. It provided them with a sense of cultural cohesion and identity. Indeed, it seemed that early on the Mardi Gras of the colonies took on a character and a flavor it never had back in France.
In 1760, France lost its Canadian colonies to Britain. Disheartened by their failures in the New World—for its lands in Louisiana had never shown a profit, and had been plagued with troubles—King Louis XV and his ministers decided to focus their attention on their colonies in the West Indies. Even though thousands of French Canadians were exiled to the region by the British, in 1762, France signed the secret Treaty of Fountainbleau, granting New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, and much of the rest of Louisiana to King Louis XV’s cousin, King Carlos III of Spain.
Spain’s control had an immediate effect on the Mardi Gras festivities that were presumably as old as colonies themselves. Although Spain, like France, was also rooted in a Celtic Christian tradition, the influence of the Church was far stricter than that in much of the rest of Europe. Parties and street dancing were immediately banned.
Even so—and despite nine months of open rebellion in 1768—under Spanish rule, many local traditions were allowed to remain, and New Orleans actually thrived, rather than merely survived as it had under French control.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension to First Consul of France marked the decline of Spanish influence in the region, now known as the western Floridas. After consolidating his strength in Europe, Napoleon turned his eyes overseas, and pressured Spain to return the Gulf Coast colonies along with the rest of Louisiana to France. New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile and the rest of the Florida parishes came under French colonial rule according to the Treaty of San Ildefonso in October, 1800. But President Thomas Jefferson of the United States viewed French control as a threat to the American ability to conduct unhindered trade. Rather than marching to war, as some members of Congress suggested, he sent Secretary of State James Madison to France to offer to buy the territories.
Napoleon had concluded even before Madison reached France that he could not hold the colonies, and that it would be in his best interest to sell it to the United States. Negotiations took about two weeks, and the territories—extending from New Orleans to the Canadian border—were sold for $15 million in 1803.
But specifically exempt from the sale was the land east of the Mississippi. And after only a year or so of French rule, those remaining parishes became independent and autonomous. Eventually, the settlers formed an independent nation extending from the Mississippi in the west to Pensacola Bay in the east and stretching as far north as present-day Montgomery, Alabama. The founders of this Gulf Coast state called their nation the Republic of West Florida and established their capital at Baton Rouge. Thomas Jefferson’s near relative, Fulwar Skipwith was elected president shortly afterward—and it was Skipwith who encouraged the adoption of the Bonnie Blue Flag, the old Celtic symbol of covenantal freedom, as the nation’s official banner.
Independence brought prosperity, liberty, and a return to open Mardi Gras celebrations. Public dancing and celebrating were allowed to return. Although costumes were worn for both, Mardi Gras was not ever confused with Halloween—another Celtic Christian celebration. Gore and mayhem were perhaps tolerated for All Hallow's Eve, but during Mardi Gras, it was glamour that was de rigour. Feathers, beads, glitter, spangles, formal attire, tuxedoes, ball gowns, and boas became a vital aspects of the jubilant tradition.
In 1810, the independence of West Florida was brought to an untimely and ignominious end when President James Madison ordered a detachment of American cavalrymen under the command of General William Claiborne to conquer the territory for the United States.
Legislators were marched out of the capitol building at bayonet-point and forced to pledge allegiance to the federal United States and its governmental emissaries. The Bonnie Blue flag was torn down and replaced by the Stars and Stripes. Despite the imposition of such seemingly blatant imperial tyranny, the region continued to prosper and Mardi Gras remained a hallmark of the distinctive region.
Such history hangs upon the Gulf Coast like the Spanish moss that drapes her live oaks. Over the course of the past three centuries, much of the region has served under seven flags: the French Fleur de Lis,Imperium, the Bonnie Blue of the Republic of West Florida, the Great Mississippi Magnolia, the Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America, the Star Spangled Banner of the United States, and briefly during the War of 1812, the British Union Jack. But it is under the banner of Krew Rex, regent of the Mardi Gras celebration, that during this time of year, it seems most at home.