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Mardi Gras History

Aug 23, 2011 06:14PM ● By Erin Frisch

Mardi Gras

How the celebration we know today evolved

Although I have not attended Mardi Gras, I have a good friend who would not think of ever missing it, so I recommend you try it for yourself! The celebration of Mardi Gras came to North America from Paris, where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages. In 1699, French explorer Iberville and his men explored the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. On a spot 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans, they set up camp on the river’s west bank. Knowing that on this day, March 3, a major holiday was being celebrated in France, they christened the site Point du Mardi Gras.

In the early 19th century, the public celebration of Mardi Gras consisted mainly of maskers on foot, in carriages, and on horseback. In 1837, a costumed group of revelers walked in the first documented “parade,” but the violent behavior of maskers during the next two decades caused a call for an end to Mardi Gras. Fortunately, six New Orleanians who were former members of the Cowbellians, a group that had presented New Year’s Eve parades in Mobile since 1831, saved the New Orleans Mardi Gras. The men beautified the celebration and proved that it could be enjoyed in a safe and festive manner. Not long after, the first organized, peaceful daytime parade was held.

The early 1960s saw the Tourist Commission try to convince the hippies that the title “Greatest Free Show on Earth” was not to be taken literally. The “easy rider” generation had City Hall worried, and rumors that the infamous Hell’s Angels were going to roll into town and crash Carnival had the entire town uptight. Nothing untoward happened, and Carnival endured. Its growth continued throughout the ’70s with the birth of 18 new parades, many featuring celebrities.

Perhaps the greatest change in Mardi Gras in the 1980s was the tremendous increase in tourism during Carnival season. Conventions by organizations that once had avoided New Orleans at Mardi Gras used the celebration as a reason to visit. International media attention was focused on Mardi Gras in the late 1980s, with camera crews from Japan, Europe, and Latin America showcasing the festivities. Mardi Gras also became a year-round industry as more off-season conventions experienced the joys of Carnival when they were treated to mini parades held in the city’s convention facilities year-round.

Written by Lesley O’Malley Keyes

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