What Is Mardi Gras? Here’s Some History Behind The Beloved Celebration

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Updated, March 5, 2019.

It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.

— Mark Twain

Mardi Gras and its various offshoots might collectively be the biggest party in the world. Celebrated from Belgium to the French Riviera, Brazil (where it’s known as “Carnival”) to Sweden, and of course in New Orleans and much of southern Louisiana as well as in southern towns like Galveston, Mobile, and St. Louis, it’s a global tradition noted for wild parties, massive parades, and epic indulgence. But how did it get started in the first place?

The annual celebration has its roots in religious festivals. In fact, if you’re in the UK or Ireland, you might hear about Pancake Tuesday. Similarly, devout Anglicans and other Protestant denominations celebrate Shrove Tuesday. As you might have guessed, these are all tied to the upcoming Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent — a forty-day period of abstaining from earthly pleasures to honor the journey of Christ into the desert. Historically, that meant giving up booze and/or rich, fatty foods as a form of penance until Easter Sunday. Eventually the day before Ash Wednesday became the day most people scored one last indulgence in before their fasting started.

This is particularly true in France, where the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became known as “Fat Tuesday” — or in French, “Mardi Gras,” of course.

So how’d it Mardi Gras make the jump to the U.S.? That dates back to 1699. French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville arrived in the area that would later become New Orleans on that year’s Mardi Gras, and named their landing point after the feast. Bienville would later found Mobile, Alabama, which was the first capital of French Louisana. In fact, the first organized Mardi Gras on the public record actually happened in Mobile in 1703, and you’ll find celebrations of it across what was once French Louisana, from Natchez to Galveston, all the way up to St. Louis.