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Was the first US Mardi Gras actually on the Mississippi Coast?

The startling and wonderful show called Mardi Gras is about to crescendo. The cacophony of music, light, color and excess will come to a screeching halt. Don’t be sad. This last and loudest note of the Carnival season will return next year.

If the Mississippi Coast ever abandons this robust holiday it will deny its role in making it so.

Mardi Gras, as everyone knows, is an ancient European tradition. Yet, we should thank the states of Louisiana, Alabama and our own Mississippi for confiscating it and making Fat Tuesday and the longer Carnival season uniquely American.

As Mark Twain observed, “...an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” He observed that in 1859 and much has happened in the interim. Today, Twain could easily replace “New Orleans” with the broader “Gulf Coast.”

I wasn’t going to write about Mardi Gras, being 1,000 miles away with no plans to come for my usual Carnival fix. Mardi Gras fever simply does not infect folks in Virginia. No day off from work. No parades. No king cake. No “Mardi Gras Mambo” wafting through the air. No good times rolling.

But the scent of Eau de Mardi Gras lingers in the air, causing memories of Mardi Gras Past to flood my brain. So I, too, shout, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Of special note this year, Gulf Coast Carnival Association is marking its 110the year of parading.

GCCA, the patriarch of Coast krewes and organizations, was rooted in 1908 in the Biloxi Literary Society before taking on the broader GCCA moniker to reflect Coastwide involvement. Today, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Ocean Springs and so many others roll parades, too.

Don’t ignore the pre-history

What locals often forget is that 1908 was not our first Mardi Gras. From the pages of this newspaper we know that the 19th century folks reveled in Carnival. By the 1880s those who did not head to New Orleans and Mobile for big-city celebrations stayed and organized local fancy balls and street masquerading in their own Coast towns.

“The average small boy — and girl, too — turned out on our streets in all the gorgeousness of Mardi Gras paraphernalia and enjoyed themselves to their heart’s content,” the Herald reported in 1888.

Biloxi can claim the first known Coast parade three years later. The Feb. 15, 1891, Herald reports:

“In the afternoon, the citizens — such of them as had not emigrated to New Orleans or Mobile for the occasion — were startled by the appearance on the streets of a gorgeous procession of seven floats, which wound its tortuous way around and through the city, much to the delight of the hundreds who assembled on street corners and house porches to witness the brilliant pageant.”

The next year, 1892, was even better, with a King Rex landing on a royal barge to kick off festivities highlighted by decorated floats “of the kind and arrangements all that taste could desire” that “moved in gorgeous cavalcade.”All agreed it was a “magnificent tableaux.”

Even earlier than that ...

Mardi Gras was first observed here in 1699, the year we tout as our founding when Europeans arrived to claim, explore and settle this region.

No written records confirm that officers and men anchored off Ship Island under the flag of King Louis XIV of France raised a toast on March 3, 1699, but it would have happened.

For certain, we know that fellow crewmen, led by the leader Iberville himself, were in a scouting party because he noted in his journal it was “Mardy Gras day.” They honored the holiday by naming the Mississippi River bend where they camped, “Mardy Gras.”

As was their homeland tradition, the earliest French Colonials on our Coast would have observed Mardi Gras. That doesn’t stop both New Orleans and Mobile from debating which of them had the first Mardi Gras. They usually ignore Mississippi’s role.

Such historical interpretation is muddied because the French kept moving the headquarters of their La Louisiane, starting with Old Biloxi in 1699, then to Mobile, then back to New Biloxi and finally to New Orleans in 1722. Their tradition of Mardi Gras, of course, traveled with them.

No one should dispute the dual roles that New Orleans and Mobile share in honing this New World Mardi Gras into a uniquely American holiday, with pretend royalty, parades, krewes and masque balls. New Orleans rightfully claims the biggest slice of the proverbial king cake.

Geographically sandwiched between Mobile and New Orleans, our Coast happily absorbs the Mardi Grasisms wafting from our two flanking cities. Can’t you hear Al Johnson singing, “Oh well, It’s Carnival Time and everybody’s havin’ fun!”

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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