Sweet Home Mardi Gras
February 16, 2023
Today is Mardi Gras, and if you think New Orleans is the birthplace of Fat Tuesday, welcome to a little Alabama history lesson: America’s Mardi Gras was born in 1703 near what is now Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans was late to the party.
Settlers in the tiny community of Fort Louis de la Mobile founded a secret organization called Masque de la Mobile that was similar to the Mardi Gras krewes still celebrating today. While there were no parades for the first celebration in the then-capital of French Louisiana, Mobile’s masked revelers feasted one last time before the Lenten period of fasting began the next day. Masque de la Mobile lasted until 1709 and was followed by the Boeuf Gras Society from 1710 to 1861. Celebrations took a hiatus during the Civil War and were revived after the war by Mobile citizen Joe Cain, who led an impromptu parade down city streets. Joe Cain Day is still celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.
Before it was called Mardi Gras, the festivities were known as “Boeuf Gras” (fatted ox). The first masked ball was held in 1710 and the first parade began in 1711 featuring a massive papiér-maché bull’s head on wheels pulled by 16 men.
New Orleans adopted the pre-Lenten festivities in 1718 – 15 years after Mobilians founded what would become growing tradition.
Mardi Gras is more than a day, it’s a season of celebrations spanning from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday – January 6 to February 26 this year. Local Mardi Gras organizations from Mobile to Decatur hold balls; stage parades with elaborate floats with masked members throwing beads, Moon Pies and toys; and bestow titles of kings and queens complete with courtiers.
The week of Mardi Gras schools in Mobile and Baldwin counties close along with government offices and many local businesses. Cities publish official parade routes (Mobile has eight for more than 40 parades) and mystic societies, often called krewes, celebrate with more than 60 balls and receptions.
Mardi Gras is big business for Alabama’s coastal counties. A WalletHub study in 2020 found Mardi Gras to have a $408 million economic impact on the Mobile area. Mardi Gras tourism – hotels and food – accounts for the lion’s share of revenue along with retail and services. The study also found 12,800 jobs in Mobile and Baldwin Counties are linked to Mardi Gras. Event space owners, food vendors, caterers, bands, and formal wear retailers are among the many businesses that count on Mardi Gras season revenue.
If you were lucky enough to catch a few beads, toys, or Moon Pies, keep in mind that krewe members must buy hundreds of throws each year. A society member can easily spend more than $1000 each year for society memberships, parades, ball supplies, and throws.
Mobile may be the birthplace of Mardi Gras, but its Alabama offspring take great pride in their local celebrations. Millbrook, Prattville, and Wetumpka, all Montgomery suburbs are noted for large parades attracting thousands. Popular parades also roll down the streets of Dothan, Andalusia, Auburn, and Decatur. Rather than a parade, Montgomery celebrates with a Mardi Gras downtown block party.
However, you celebrate Mardi Gras, remember it’s a product of Sweet Home Alabama. Cut a slice of sweet king cake and let the good times roll.
Want to know more? Visit the Mobile Carnival Museum online or in person when visiting Mobile.