Though Mardi Gras is practically synonymous with New Orleans, it turns out that the Big Easy isn’t even the first city in America to have celebrated the pre-Lenten feast. That honor goes to Mobile, Alabama, which hosted the first Mardi Gras way back in 1703, 15 years before New Orleans was even established. Find out 17 things you never knew about Mardi Gras.
It didn’t take long for the holiday—which starts on Kings Day, January 6 and runs through the day before Ash Wednesday—to take hold. In the 1730s it was celebrated with elegant society balls, a precursor of the Mardi Gras balls of today, according to MardiGrasNewOrleans.com.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that Mardi Gras was celebrated on the streets with masked riders on horseback and carriages leading the way. The first floats date back to 1856—and New Orleans once again has Mobile to thank for the tradition as it was six Mobile natives who formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which MardiGrasNewOrleans credits with bringing “magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls. This is why Mardi Gras float riders must wear masks.
Flash forward to 1875 to when Governor Henry Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act into law making the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday an official state holiday, which it remains today.
Modern Mardi Gras
Randy Bibb, a certified tour guide in New Orleans, says typically about 1.5 million visitors come to New Orleans for Carnival. The city can estimate how many people attended by the tonnage of trash it cleans up day after day after day, he says. “Last year, more than 600 tons were swept up and used for landfill. New Orleanians joke that it should be used to fill potholes in the streets!”
So why is Mardi Gras more heavily associated with New Orleans than Mobile? It could be that in the 1700s, New Orleans developed into “a bustling port city with strong Catholic roots” as Time reports or that the floats are themed, which is one of the reasons Arthur Hardy, author of Mardi Gras Guide, attributes to the popularity of the city’s Carnival, per Time.
But to ask the question, why does New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras, is like asking why a cat meows or a dog barks—it’s in the city’s DNA. This, after all, is a place where creativity is as strong as anywhere on the planet and people are free-spirited, looking for any occasion to party. The good news is, while Mardi Gras in NOLA may be best known, there are a number of other cities in America and across the world where you can celebrate Fat Tuesday.