By Sonya D. Lavett
Mardi Gras on the Gulf Coast is a monumental occasion! It is so special here that locals are surprised to hear other parts of the country don’t take part in all the festivity and fun.
Many are familiar with Mardi Gras because of the notoriety produced by the New Orleans festivities; however, residents of Mobile and other cities along the Gulf Coast region recognize that Mardi Gras initially came to be in the port city of Mobile, Alabama. This long held tradition has been going on since 1704 when the French settled in Mobile. This was the year of the very first Mardi Gras celebration, but it would not be until 1830 that the larger and more organized parades began.
The story goes that one precocious gentleman by the name of Michael Krafft gathered a few items from a local hardware store and proceeded through the streets of Mobile clanging his bells the evening after Christmas. As he made his way to Royal Street, he garnered a crowd and many curious individuals joined his one-man parade. The spectacle was so entertaining that the newspapers requested an encore for New Year’s Eve. Krafft, not wanting to disappoint the community, indulged the request and organized with other revelers. The participants made the most of the attention, dressing up in costumes and carrying as many noisemakers as they could find. Along the way to the mayor’s home, they stopped at several homes to eat, drink, and be merry. When someone asked what society this was, Krafft reportedly responded, “This is the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. “
From there, other societies, also known as krewes, were created. Secrecy was paramount as the societies hoped to dispense with the most entertaining and Avant Garde spectacle for the attendees of the celebration.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the celebration is that it seems to hold no other purpose but for revelers to enjoy the themed balls, parades, costumes, and long-held tradition of catching throws.
In looking at the celebration from a historical perspective, however, the timing of this celebration moved at one point from New Year’s Eve to events that are marked as special or holy on the Christian calendar.
Mardi Gras literally translates to Fat Tuesday, which is always the day before Ash Wednesday. Precisely at midnight following Fat Tuesday marks the end of the celebration, before Lent begins the following day. This is when many Christians opt to offer prayer and penance before Easter, which historically has been a period of 40 days. This is the period where fasting may occur. Others may not go full blown fasting, but instead will give up something that they enjoy for that period between Ash Wednesday and the Saturday before Easter.
In looking back even further, all the way to the second century, the Romans observed a fast of 40 days, which was preceded by a brief season of feasting, costumes and merrymaking. So, in some respects, Mardi Gras may have gotten its beginnings from our ancestors a couple of thousand years ago before Krafft ever walked out of his neighborhood mercantile with noisemakers in hand.
If you have never experienced the grandiose celebration of Mardi Gras along the Gulf Coast, I urge you to do so at least once in your life. For those who are familiar with the liveliness of the St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York, think of Mardi Gras along the same terms, but lasting four to six weeks, rather than one day of indulgences. Whether you choose to celebrate in New Orleans or Mobile makes no difference; the people who live along the Gulf Coast will welcome you with open arms. Our hope is that you will take your enjoyable experiences and share them with your own communities so the Mardi Gras tradition can finally be established as a national holiday.