Meet the seamstress who made Mardi Gras
South Mississippi’s Carnival season kicks off Saturday with the season’s first parade in Lucedale, and it will be the first such parade held in Lucedale since 1963.
Fat Tuesday is Feb. 13 this year and when it is all over, some 28 parades will have celebrated the Carnival season throughout South Mississippi.
Why do we do it? Sure, we love to grab some beads. We love to dress up, wear masks and parade. It is all in good fun but Mardi Gras is deeper than that.
Today, we present a primer on Mardi Gras and Carnival season, compiled from the Sun Herald archives, where we have documented and chronicled the Carnival season every year since at least 1908, when the Gulf Coast Carnival Association held its first parade with 17 floats, 150 flambeau carriers, the Biloxi mayor and council and a 12-piece Daily Herald (the forerunner to the Sun Herald) Band.
So brush up on your history below, and laissez les bon temps rouler!
Carnival vs. Mardi Gras
We’re not supposed to, but we denizens of Mardi Gras-land use the words “Carnival” and “Mardi Gras” interchangeably.
Mardi Gras — which means Fat Tuesday in French — is the one-day culmination of a very long Carnival season. This year Mardi Gras is Tuesday, Feb. 13.
Carnival is the actual season, this year 39 days’ worth. Carnival begins Jan. 6 every year and is called Kings Day, or Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany, a holy day of obligation in the Roman Catholic Church. Carnival ends at midnight Fat Tuesday.
So who cares about all this trivia? Well, if you get challenged by a tradition stickler, you’ll know the right answers.
Why does the date change?
It’s true; the date of Mardi Gras is never the same in successive years. Last year it was Feb. 28. This year, it is Feb. 13.
Everyone’s life would be simplified if Mardi Gras fell on the same date each year, but the reason for the fluctuation goes back centuries to when the Catholic Church established a fixed date for Christmas but moveable dates for other religious holidays. Easter was set to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox, so Easter may fall any Sunday between March 23 and April 25. Mardi Gras is then scheduled 47 days before Easter and can occur on any Tuesday from Feb. 3 through March 9.
Here are a few upcoming dates: March 5, 2019; Feb. 25, 2020; Feb. 16, 2021; March 1, 2022; Feb. 21, 2023; Feb. 13, 2024; and March 4, 2025.
Who gets the credit?
Ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts get the credit, or blame, for Mardi Gras and Carnival. Mardi Gras is rooted in Lupercalia, a spring fertility festival celebrated by the Greeks more than 3,000 years ago. Masking and overindulgence were commonplace, but once in Roman hands, Lupercalia became an orgy in which face masks were necessary to hide misconduct.
In a zeal to make Christian converts, church leaders linked existing pagan feasts to benchmark Christian events. For example, winter solstice was linked to the birth of Jesus, and Lupercalia to the onset of the Lenten season of penance. In so doing they allowed people to keep their festivals, but tempered by Christian teachings.
These observances eventually came to the New World. And as present-day Mississippi was colonized by the French, it was they who brought the Carnival season to this area in 1699.
Why are they throwing things?
“Throw me something, mister!” is an oft-repeated phrase on parade routes; it is a learned response.
Early French and Spanish colonists masquerading in the streets on New Orleans and Mobile sometimes tossed trinkets and sugar-coated almonds to the crowds, as they had in Europe; hence the plea for something to be thrown.
This led to frankly dangerously heavy items being hurled for a time, but the organized krewes brought things under control, and relative calm was restored before the advent of the 20th century.
Glass-bead necklaces were the most popular trinkets until 1960, when the first aluminum doubloons were minted and tossed into crowds along New Orleans streets. The coins are the invention of a retired sea captain and engraver named H. Alvin Sharpe, who convinced the Rex organization they would be a “sensation.”
Glass beads were replaced by plastic beads, partly for safety and partly for cost. Today the longer or bigger the string of beads, the harder spectators work to get it.
The 1980s brought plastic souvenir cups, and in the 1990s krewe trading cards and bikini underwear were added to the list of popular throws.
Moon Pie madness
When they hit you, some parade throws hurt, but not the Moon Pie.
They’re soft, they’re sweet and, popularized by a Mobile krewe, they’ve come to the Mississippi Coast as a popular throw.
Moon Pies were born in Chattanooga, Tenn., about a century ago as a working man’s treat — something inexpensive and sweet. Thanks to Carnival, the chocolate-coated marshmallow-filled cookie is popular again. At least in our region.
The idea of throwing them in parades belongs to Mobile, where krewes are always in search of ways to be different from New Orleans. They decided to replace Cracker Jacks boxes with the big cookies, the former having sharp dangerous corners, the latter being round and soft. Moon Pies began to turn up in Coast parades in the 1990s.
Now what about the parades?
Long before there were organized parades, Biloxi, Pass Christian and other Coast-area towns had their own 19th-century street masking and their own balls.
The first known Coast parade didn’t roll until 1891, when seven floats appeared on the streets of Biloxi in what was described in the newspaper as a “brilliant pageant.”
Parading really took off after the Gulf Coast Carnival Association’s forerunner, The Biloxi Carnival & Literary Association, staged its first parade in 1908. The group incorporated in 1916, one year after the Pass Christian Men’s Carnival Association’s first parade rolled. Today the St. Paul Carnival Association, a descendant of that early organization, stages one of the Coast’s most popular parades.
After World War II and during the 1950s and ’60s new krewes sprouted, and they continue to do so. Some host only balls and parties; others stage whole parades or sponsor floats in other parades.
Krewe is a weird spelling
The spelling is strange but the term is familiar to Carnival celebrants, even though krewes started as part of a New Year’s Eve frolic in Mobile. In 1830, Capt. George Higgins and Michael Krafft were doing their New Year’s imbibing when they gathered rakes and cow bells from the local hardware store and paraded down the streets, stopping at houses along the way for more merriment.
To repeat the grand time, they created the Cowbellion de Rakin Society and paraded every New Year’s Eve.
In 1857, several Protestant Cowbellions who’d moved to Catholic New Orleans adapted the idea for that city’s waning and roughneck Mardi Gras. The righteous clamored to ban the celebration, but to the rescue rode the Cowbellion-inspired Mystick Krewe of Comus, which introduced order and dignity into the chaotic celebration.
“Krewe” quickly became part of the Carnival lexicon. The word is a bit made up and a bit Anglicized, which at first offended the Catholic French and Creoles; krewe-mania, however, was unstoppable.
Why purple, green and gold?
Surely you’ve noticed the colors of Carnival: purple, green and gold.
They first appeared in 1872 on a Rex Carnival flag specially designed for the visiting Grand Duke of Russia. He came to New Orleans just for Carnival, and the colors remain his legacy. Rex, the New Orleans monarch of Carnival, later assigned a meaning to each color.
Purple represents justice.
Green is for faith.
Not surprisingly, gold signifies power.
We were first
Mention Mardi Gras anywhere in the world and people immediately link it to New Orleans.
That makes Mobile mad because that city wants the world to know that “They do it all right in Louisiana, but we did it first in Alabama.”
There’s no arguing that explorers and settlers flying the French flag of King Louis XIV observed the Old World tradition of Mardi Gras in the New World when they established La Louisiane, a vast territory eventually absorbed into the fledgling United States. The 1699 French leader Iberville mentions Mardi Gras in his journal.
That first Gulf Coast Mardi Gras, of course, was religion-based, more somber than anything dreamed up in the mostly secular 21st century celebration. As the Gulf region was settled in the 1700s and early 1800s, these European-Americans continued to observe their Mardi Gras — the Fat Tuesday that for centuries had permitted good food, drink and revelry before the restraints of Lent set in the next day.
‘Me first!’ ‘No, me first!’
Read the histories, and you’ll know New Orleans unquestioningly birthed the modern American Mardi Gras with Carnival krewes, beads, doubloons, the purple-green-gold colors and so much else that is integral to the American Carnival season.
Read the histories, and you’ll know that a handful of men from Mobile who moved to New Orleans are credited with saving Mardi Gras from being outlawed in the Crescent City, aghast at the debauchery from this “rotten relic of European degeneracy,” as one newspaper described it.
That story rightly begins in Mobile in 1830 when on New Year’s Eve some feeling-no-pain Mobilians raided a hardware store of rakes, cowbells and horns for a loud and colorful procession. The men had such fun that they formed the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, mentioned earlier, as a New Year’s Eve tradition, complete with annual balls, parades, glittery costumes and tableaux.
Several of these Cowbellions moved to New Orleans and in 1853 translated their New Year’s Eve tradition into a New Orleans Mardi Gras mainstay. That year, their role in the formation of the Mistick Krewe of Comus silenced official threats to ban the gone-wild celebration, which included, among other horrors, flour hatefully thrown on street maskers.
Comus, acknowledged as the first American Mardi Gras society, was based on the Cowbellion idea of organization, sane rules, costumes and safer fun.
These threads of history, of course, opened the floodgate for “We were first!” debates between New Orleans and Mobile. New Orleans improved its Mardi Gras as a tourist attraction but Mobile prided itself on putting on a party for itself. Today, both city coffers are fattened by Fat Tuesday tourism.
What seems to be lost in all this debate is the role of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
No Mobile or New Orleans existed in 1699 when Iberville, his crews and his frigates were anchored off Ship Island. They were busy exploring the Gulf region and establishing a colony called “Bilocci” and France’s first fort, Maurepas. Some histories describe the fort, located in modern-day Ocean Springs, as the first French capital.
Did these early settlers/explorers and fort builders observe Mardi Gras? Of course. They were mostly French and Canadians and mostly Catholics who brought their Old World traditions with them.
Iberville’s journal dated March 3, 1699, proves that he observed Mardi Gras: “Mardy Gras day, wind in the northeast .... I came on and spend the night at a bend it makes to the west, 12 leagues above the mouth on a point on the right side of the river, to which we have given the name Mardy Gras.”
Histories refer to the site as Mardi Gras Point or Mardi Gras Bayou but it no longer exists, having fallen victim to the shifting Mississippi River. The location was close to what would become the dividing line between the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, and it was on the west side.
Don’t ignore Mississippi
No written records have surfaced to prove that the officers and men anchored off Ship Island in 1699 or that the French colonials soon taking up residence in Old Biloxi and Fort Maurepas observed Mardi Gras. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
As was their homeland tradition, the earliest French Colonials would have observed Mardi Gras here. What we don’t know is how they observed it. Mobile and New Orleans also know little about their first Mardi Gras observations.
Some histories claim Mobile had the first American Mardi Gras in 1703 and contend that is 15 years before New Orleans. Almost all Mardi Gras histories ignore the French fleet anchored on the Mississippi Coast in 1699 and the settlement of Fort Maurepas.
Part of the muddying of historical interpretation comes because King Louis and his principals kept moving the headquarters of La Louisiane, starting with Old Biloxi in 1699, then to Mobile, then back to New Biloxi and finally to New Orleans in 1722. It’s best to leave the interpretations of the hop-scotch “capitalizations” of the French Colony to learned historians.
But we can safely assume the Mississippi Coast also experienced the earliest Mardi Gras in the United States. Of course, those early muted observances would be without the revelry of the 28 Mardi Gras parades that will roll on our Coast in 2018.
Researched and originally reported by former staff writer Kat Bergeron
South Mississippi’s Carnival Parades 2018
Here is a complete list of South Mississippi’s Carnival parades.
Lucedale Carnival Association will parade at 11 a.m.
The Pass Christian Carnival Association’s Krewe of Legacy will parade at 1 p.m.
Ocean Springs Elks will parade at 1 p.m.
Krewe Unique will parade in Ocean Springs at 2 p.m.
Lizana Carnival Association will parade at 1 p.m.
The Biloxi Children’s Walking Mardi Gras Parade will be at 10 a.m. in Biloxi
Krewe of Kids Bay St. Louis will parade at 11 a.m.
Krewe of Little Rascals will parade in Pascagoula at 1 p.m.
Krewe of Pine Island will parade in Vancleave at 1:30 p.m.
Krewe of the Pearl will parade in Picayune at 2 p.m.
Carnival Association of Long Beach will parade at 6 p.m.
Gautier Men’s Club will parade at 7 p.m.
Krewe of Nereids will parade in Waveland at noon
Krewe of Barkloxi’s Bow Wow Paw-rade will be at noon in Biloxi
Ocean Springs Carnival Association will parade at 7 p.m.
The Mermaid & The Phoenix All Female Parade will be 8 p.m. in Ocean Springs
Second Liners Mardi Gras Club will parade in Biloxi at noon
Krewe of Diamondhead will parade at noon
Jackson County Carnival Association will parade in Pascagoula at 1 p.m.
Krewe of Gemini will parade in Gulfport at 2 p.m.
Krewe of Neptune will parade in Biloxi at 5:30 p.m.
Krewe of Salacia will parade in Biloxi following the Krewe of Neptune
St. Paul Carnival Association will parade in Pass Christian at 11: 30 a.m.
North Bay Mardi Gras Association will parade in D’Iberville at 1:30 p.m.
Mystic Krewe of the Seahorse will parade in Bay St. Louis at 5 p.m.
Gulf Coast Carnival Association will parade in Biloxi at 1 p.m.
Krewe of Real People: The Next Generation will parade in Bay St. Louis at 1 p.m.
Krewe of Gemini will parade in Gulfport at 5:30 p.m.