On February 26, 1827, a new State of Louisiana holiday, was born. This day, a group of masked and costumed students dance through the streets of New Orleans, marking the beginning of the city's famous Mardi Gras celebrations. The students, inspired by their experiences studying in Paris, donned masks and jester costumes and staged their own Fat Tuesday festivities.
The celebration of Carnival--or the weeks between Twelfth Night on January 6 and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian period of Lent--spread from Rome across Europe and later to the Americas. Many see a relationship to the ancient tribal rituals of fertility that welcomed the arrival of Spring. A possible ancestor of the celebration was the Lupercalia, a circus-like orgy held in mid-February in Rome. Note that Feast of Lupercalia is considered a likely origin for the St. Valentine’s Day as well. The early Church fathers, realizing that it was impossible to divorce their new converts from their pagan customs, decided instead to direct them into Christian channels. Thus Carnival was created as a period of merriment that would serve as a prelude to the penitential season of Lent.
Nowhere in the United States is Carnival celebrated as grandly as in New Orleans, famous for its over-the-top parades and parties for Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.
And the history of the Carnival in Louisiana can be traced as far back in history as end of the 17th century. A French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed on a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans in 1699 and called it "Pointe due Mardi Gras." He also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated the very first Mardi Gras.
In 1704, Mobile already established a secret society (Masque de la Mobile), similar to those who form the currently active Mardi Gras Krewes. It lasted until 1709, but in 1710, the "Boeuf Graf Society" was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull's head pushed alone on wheels by 16 men. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.
New Orleans was established in 1718 by Jean-Baptise Le Moyne. While by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but it was not in parade form. In the early 1740s, Louisiana's Governor The Marquis de Vaudreuil established elegant society balls -- the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.
Under French rule masked balls flourished, but were later banned by the Spanish governors. The prohibition continued when New Orleans became an American city in 1803, but by 1823, the Creole populace prevailed upon the American governor, and balls were again permitted. Four years later street masking was legalized.
Started in 1827, the parades grew in popularity, and by the late 1830s, newspapers began already announcing Mardi Gras events in advance. In 1871, Mardi Gras's second "Krewe" is formed, the Twelfth Night Reveler's, with the first account of Mardi Gras "throws."
1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival -- Rex -- to parade in the first daytime parade. A visit by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff was the partial inspiration for the first appearance of Rex. The King of Carnival immediately became the international symbol of Mardi Gras. Rex presented Mardi Gras' first organized daytime parade, selected Carnival's colors--purple, gold and green, produced its flag, and introduced its anthem, "If Ever I Cease To Love." In 1872, the Knights of Momus also entered the Carnival scene.
In 1873, the first floats were constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France. Over time, hundreds of krewes formed, building elaborate and colorful floats for parades held over the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Riders on the floats are usually local citizens who toss "throws" at passersby, including metal coins, stuffed toys or those now-infamous strands of beads. Though many tourists mistakenly believe Bourbon Street and the historic French Quarter are the heart of Mardi Gras festivities, none of the major parades have been allowed to enter the area since 1979 because of its narrow streets.
In 1875, Governor Warmoth of Louisiana signs the "Mardi Gras Act" making it a legal holiday in Louisiana, which is still is.
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