More than Just Beads: A Brief History of Mardi Gras

mardi gras mask

Mardi Gras is a hallowed holiday here in the US, but why? For many people (read: college-aged, sex-hungry dudes), Mardi Gras is a chance to hop a cheap flight down to the Big Easy, drink on the streets, and throw beads in an attempt to see some skin.

Would you be shocked to find out that that isn’t the real reason for Mardi Gras? Shocking, right? Take a breath, though. It’ll be okay.

If you peel the layers of the onion that is Mardi Gras back, you’ll find a Catholic holiday rich in history and tradition that spans the globe. While many of us here in the US may associate it with New Orleans, king cakes, and Krewes, there’s actually a lot more to it. Read on to find out more!

The Name

Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” and refers to the ritualistic eating of generally unhealthy foods (hello, king cake) before forty days of fasting that accompany the season of Lent in the Catholic faith.

The First Celebrations

The celebration of Mardi Gras—also known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, depending on where you are—dates back to Medieval times in Europe. Feasting on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season of fasting, were common in Italy and France, and these traditions eventually made their way to the New World with the French.

(Note: We’ll be focusing on the Christian holiday of Mardi Gras, but before the Christians got hold of the celebrations, pagans across the world celebrated various spring and fertility rites that included celebrations, feasting, and debauchery of all sorts. These types of celebrations can be seen in various Carnival festivities around the world.)

The First US Mardi Gras

mardi gras original parade

In 1699, an explorer—Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville—landed about sixty miles south of the place that would become New Orleans (the city itself would be established nineteen years later by Bienville). Landing on the eve of Mardi Gras, he named the place “Pointe du Mardi Gras” as a means of honoring the holiday.  This is seen as the first celebration of the holiday in the US.

Evolution of the Holiday

Over time, the celebrations that began at Point du Mardi Gras began to grow. There were parades and street parties (not like those today, mind you), high society balls, and more. The parties continued on over the next few decades until the Spanish took over New Orleans in the 1760s and worked to shut down what they viewed as deprave celebrations. The restrictions continued until the US Government took over in the early 1800s. From then until 1837, the holiday was recognized but not encouraged.

The First Parade and the First Krewe

After decades of suppression, the first official (read: recorded) Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837. Parades and elegant balls continued in the following years, but by the early 1850s, had begun to wane in popularity.

In 1857, six men established a secret group that they named the Mistick Krewe of Comus. The Krewe of Comus held a themed parade— “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost”—as well as a ball, working hard to reinvigorate the holiday in the Big Easy.

Mardi Gras, 1857 to Today

krew and parade mardi gras

From the time of the first Krewe, Mardi Gras continued to grow. More Krewes formed (the second of which, the Twelfth Night Revelers, formed in 1870) and the celebrations and parades attracted more and more people. Two years after the Revelers formed, Rex, the King of Carnival, was created as a persona to oversee the Mardi Gras daytime parades. The social clubs that presided over the parades and balls are the ones primarily responsible for the Mardi Gras we know today.

While this isn’t a total history of Mardi Gras, we’ve given you enough to drunkenly tell to everyone you come into contact with today. So get out there, get a slice of king cake, and get all your revelry in before Lent starts.