Mardi Gras 2019 is Tuesday, March 5th
Mobile Holds First Mardi Gras
Mobile, Alabama Is the Home of the First Official U.S. Mardi Gras
Most people assume that New Orleans is the ancestral home of Mardi Gras, but history indicates that the first “official” Mardi Gras celebration in the New World was held in 1703 in Mobile Alabama.
Set high up in Mobile Bay, Mobile, Alabama is a delightful mid-sized city whose combination of modern amenities, history, classic southern charm, and terrific Gulf Coast cuisine make it an ideal Mardi Gras (and year-round) destination.
Mardi Gras History:
While the first Carnival ( Mardi Gras) celebration in the United States may have been held in the early 18th century, some say that Mardi Gras-type celebrations date as far back as a wild Roman festival known as Lupercalia. Later, when Christianity caught on, the church probably found it easier to adopt some “pagan” rites and rituals rather than inventing new ones. It’s believed that Lupercalia made its way into European culture and was eventually tied to Twelfth Night and Lent.
Then, in the late 17th century, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville et d'Ardillières (Iberville), a French Explorer came to America and made camp in the New World about 60 miles downriver from present day New Orleans. Iberville and his merry band of explorers celebrated Mardi Gras as they had back home. Exactly how the Mardi Gras celebration made its way from southern Louisiana more than a hundred miles east to Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff (Mobile’s first settlement) remains a mystery. But history tells us that fours years after Iberville made camp along the mighty Mississippi, the early settlers of Mobile celebrated what they called Boef Gras (Fat Beef).
Mobile's Carnival Krewes
Though the celebration of Mardi Gras in Mobile is believed to have begun in 1703, the city’s rich tradition of social parading organizations (krewes) is said to have begun in 1830 when a group of locals wanted their New Year’s Eve dinner party to continue a bit longer and took to the streets. They made their way to a nearby store and “armed” themselves with a variety of farm implements and cowbells before marching through the streets. This motley band became known as the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, Mobile’s first mystic society.
By the 1850s, it’s believed that several members of Cowbellion had relocated to Louisiana, where they continued their Mardi Gras tradition and helped New Orleans (NOLA) begin its own Mardi Gras celebration. While that’s the official story, it seems more likely that between 1699, when Iberville landed on the Mississippi, and the mid-1800s Mardi Gras simply made its way upriver to the Crescent City (New Orleans).
A few years later, the Civil War curtailed Mardi Gras festivities in Mobile, as it did throughout the South. Then, in April of 1865, Union troops invaded and took control of Mobile. The following year a local clerk and former member of a mystic society (the Tea Drinkers Mystic Society) named Joseph Stillwell Cain (Joe Cain) dressed up as a mythical Native American chief and led a parade through occupied Mobile. Joe Cain’s action was the spark needed to reignite Mobile’s love of parades and parties. He also succeeded in moving the celebrations from New Year’s Eve to Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday), the day we now refer to as "Mardi Gras Day".
To this day, Joe Cain Day (the Sunday before Fat Tuesday) in Mobile is regarded as one of the biggest events on Mobile’s Mardi Gras calendar. On Joe Cain Day, thousands of people dress up and parade through the streets on foot, and on floats, celebrating the man who brought Mobile’s Mardi Gras tradition back to life.
Mobile Mystic Societies
While Mobile’s mystic social parading organizations may have begun with a half dozen guys brandishing rakes and hoes, but today Mobile has dozens (according to Krewe Central) of Mardi Gras krewes and ”mystic” societies that sponsor and participate in parades, and host elaborate costume balls during Carnival season. Throughout the rest of the year, many of these groups sponsor charity events, and expend their energy on behalf of the community. While the parades are fun, krewe members will tell you that it is these, largely unseen acts of community good, that give them lasting satisfaction.
Most societies are “closed” requiring sponsorship from an existing member, approval by the group, and payment of dues. In some cases this may in fact be a way of limiting membership to certain classes of people. But it is also a way of ensuring that members share a similar commitment to the group’s goals, and to Mobile's proud Mardi Gras tradition.
Krewes and mystic societies in Mobile also elect a Mobile Mardi Gras King and Queen from among their ranks. King Felix III and his queen serve a one-year term, are typically in their twenties, have no real "authority", and spend most of their time during Mardi Gras chairing events and functions. During the rest of the year, they serve as the public relations face of Mobile’s Carnival krewes and mystic societies.
Mobile's Mardi Gras Parades (Today)
Modern Mardi Gras in Mobile consists of numerous parades spread across four parade routes that wind throughout the downtown area and adjacent the neighborhoods. Mobile is also known for offering a number of family-friendly (alcohol free) zones along its parade routes.
Historic Battle House Hotel
In downtown Mobile at the corner of N. Royal Street and St. Francis Street sits a venerable old building that’s been lovingly restored. Throughout its storied life the Battle House Hotel has served as a military headquarters for Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, a Confederate Civil War hospital, a National Weather Service station established by president Ulysses S. Grant, was decimated by fire, and, after a massive renovation, is now centrally located on Mobile’s Mardi Gras parade routes, making it an ideal gathering spot and perennial favorite lodging choice for locals and returning Carnival revelers, many of whom have celebrated Mardi Gras in Mobile for decades.
Things to See in Mobile
For anyone visiting Mobile during Carnival, or at any other time of the year, Mobile offers a wide range of things to see and do between Mardi Gras parades. The Mobile Carnival Museum, conveniently located downtown, offers a fabulous look at local Mardi Gras history, and boasts an impressive collection of costumes, and other artifacts. Fort Conde, a 4/5 scale living history replica of one of Mobile’s early military outposts, is also located downtown. Additionally, the USS Alabama (a decommissioned battleship and the USS Drum ( a decommissioned submarine) military park are just a short drive away across Mobile Bay. Finally, If getting out into nature are more your style, Bellingrath Home & Gardens and the beaches on Dauphin Island should make their way to the top of your list of things to see and do.
While Mobile is recognized far and wide as the first Mardi Gras celebration, the festivities are far from “old school”. Everything is up to date. Mobile’s is one of the largest, most highly regarded, easily accessible, and actively family-friendly Mardi Gras celebrations in the country. And, at any time of the year, Mobile is a city brimming with history, educational activities, outdoor fun, great food, and southern hospitality.
Sources (and External Links)
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research which led us to the following sources of information:
7. Renaissance Battle House Hotel (Public Relations Office) - Battle House Hotel History