When you think of the birthplace of Mardi Gras, do you picture Mobile, Alabama? We’re guessing not–most people probably imagine New Orleans!
Just the words “Mardi Gras” conjure images of king cake and beads on Bourbon Street. But Mobile deserves more credit for Fat Tuesday than you might think.
Many believe this city on Alabama’s coast is responsible for the very first American celebration, and there’s some history to back them up. So where did Mardi Gras in the U.S. start?
Let’s find out!
What Is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras’s history goes back more than 300 years. It usually coincides with Shrove Tuesday, the Christian feast day preceding the sacrificial season of Lent. Known as Carnival in other parts of the world, the first known celebration happened in South America in the mid-1600s. French settlers threw the first North American Carnival in 1703.
The extravaganza as we know it today was born a few years later, in 1711. Partygoers decided to carry a paper mâché bull–a symbol of traditional pre-Lenten feasts–through the streets. This was the first time a parade was included in the North American Carnival festivities.
Masked parading societies, also known commonly as “mystics” or “krewes,” began forming. The first formally recognized society was Cowbellian de Rakin. Their parade included horse-drawn floats, a common feature at present-day processions.
Today, Mardi Gras and Carnival are celebrated all around the world. For some, they hold a religious importance; for others, they’re just great parties!
Most Americans associate the holiday with the colorful, historic city of New Orleans. But did Mardi Gras actually start there?
Was the Birthplace of Mardi Gras in Mobile or New Orleans?
The origin of Fat Tuesday in North America is hotly disputed. It’s a debate that’s been going on for centuries. Depending on who you ask, it started in America in one of two places. The actual birthplace of Mardi Gras is a toss-up between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama.
But for those who believe the holiday started in New Orleans point to March 3, 1699. Bienville and Iberville, two French explorers, marked a tract of land just 60 miles from the future city’s location. The day also happened to be Shrove Tuesday! Iberville declared the spot “La Pointe du Mardy Gras,” and the two explorers shared a small celebration.
As for Mobile, the parade with the paper-mâché bull in 1711 took place there. So did the Carnival thrown by French settlers in 1703. That year a Frenchman named Nicholas Langlois even threw a masked ball called the Masque de la Mobile. Langlois also established the Societe de Saint Louis, which organized Carnival parties.
Pro Tip: If you’re heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, make sure to grab a bite at one of these 5 Can’t Miss Restaurants in New Orleans.
Mobile Is the Home of America’s Family Mardi Gras
Mobile takes Mardi Gras very seriously. Much like New Orleans, the city celebrates this holiday for the better part of a month. That means people of all ages attend the festivities, from children to seniors.
Parades take place on the weekends in the first half of February. Some include just one krewe or mystic, while others contain up to five or six. As the month progresses, so do the festivities: processions happen daily in Mobile halfway through February. Some start as early as noon, while others begin after sunset. The celebration culminates with massive parades on Shrove Tuesday–the actual day of Mardi Gras.
The city takes pride in this massive festival! Many city streets are blocked off to accommodate the holiday. Attendees line sidewalks in chairs or on foot, sometimes holding colorful signs and party favors.
Maskers toss treats like Moon Pies, candies, and beads to onlookers. Also, there’s good news for drinkers: Mobile’s open container laws permit adults over 21 to consume alcohol in designated areas.
What Is Joe Cain Day?
A Mobile Mardi Gras wouldn’t be complete without Joe Cain Day. But this unique holiday is specific to the area’s history, honoring one of the founders of the city’s Fat Tuesday festivities.
According to AlabamaLegacy.org, Joe Cain left his mark on Mobile in the late 1860s. Mardi Gras was regularly celebrated alongside the New Year until the beginning of the Civil War. Festivities were paused for multiple years. But by 1866, Cain felt he’d waited long enough.
Cain gathered six friends and held an impromptu parade in the downtown area. The seven revelers pulled a decorated wagon, and Cain wore a Native American chief’s costume. He also publicly pronounced that the city would return to parades and celebrations.
Due to Cain’s influence, Mardi Gras celebrations did return. The city also moved the holiday to its true Shrove Tuesday date. After his death, the rebel parader was buried downtown and given a tombstone honoring his influence. Joe Cain Day is now celebrated every Sunday before Shrove Tuesday in Mobile. Residents still remember him with special processions, referred to as The People’s Parade.
Pro Tip: After Mardi Gras, spend the night at one of these 7 Best Alabama State Parks for Camping.
Is the Mobile Carnival Museum Worth Visiting?
Want to learn more about the history of Mardi Gras in Alabama? Well, there’s a museum for that! The Mobile Carnival Museum is an excellent resource for exploring this uniquely American holiday.
The museum, housed in a historic mansion, includes 14 galleries with Mardi Gras artifacts and memorabilia. Their collections include costumes and accessories from some of the earliest celebrations.
Visitors can enjoy video presentations and a pictorial hallway. There’s even an interactive float to explore and climb on! The museum also mounts special exhibits that dive even deeper into the stories behind Carnival and Fat Tuesday.
The Mobile Carnival Museum is located in the heart of the city on Government Street. It’s open every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. According to the museum website, admission is $8.00 for adults and $3.00 for children ages 12 and under.
Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!
Mardi Gras is one of the biggest, boldest holidays in the United States. It offers people of all walks of life the chance to enjoy one of the best parties of the year. Over time, this vast gathering spawned new traditions and social groups. The celebration evolves a little more every year thanks to the people who observe it.
So does it matter where Fat Tuesday started? Whether its birthplace was in Mobile or New Orleans, we’re just grateful for Mardi Gras, period!
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