By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
Mardi Gras is more than beads, bands, and parades. It’s a three-century-old celebration of cultural identity in the United States, with varied celebrations at the same time in the Caribbean and Brazil.
Each generation uses the festivities in the days before Ash Wednesday to pass on family and community traditions to the next generation, writer Chelsea Brasted says. It’s part of a Christian feasting period that culminates on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, and is also known as Carnival and Carnaval.
The history is tricky. New Orleans is popularly considered America’s Mardi Gras epicenter, but Mobile, Alabama, lays claim to the first celebration, citing a party in Mobile by French-Canadian explorer LeMoyne d’Iberville, before New Orleans was founded. (New Orleans has a competing claim, and historians question the Mardi Gras-ness of d’Iberville’s first celebration.)
Nonetheless, Mardi Gras became an annual tradition in Mobile (above). Parade crews began in the 1830s and party beads (gold for power, green for faith) were distributed in 1872. Mobile later added purple beads, signifying justice. (A side note: environmentalists say parade organizers should move from plastic beads to a more sustainable component.)
Both Mobile and New Orleans swapped and enriched each other’s Fat Tuesday traditions, says Steve Joynt, a Mobile Mardi Gras historian. “Without New Orleans, there would be no Mobile Mardi Gras,” he says. “Without Mobile, there would be no New Orleans Mardi Gras.”
That settled, let the good times roll.
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