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Mardi Gras: A Tale of Two Cities

February 17, 2017

Here in New Orleans we are well-acquainted with the traditions of the Carnival season.

Mardi Gras: A Tale of Two Cities

Here in New Orleans we are well-acquainted with the traditions of the Carnival season. From lining up on the streets and dodging the masses of parade ladders, to taste-testing all of the king cakes our belt-loops can handle, New Orleans is recognized as the national hub of Mardi Gras culture. But what created Mardi Gras as we know it in the Crescent City? As New Orleans prepares to celebrate its tricentennial in the coming year, it is important to look back at the tradition of Mardi Gras as it has developed and what set our city apart.

Mobile, AL: The Original North American Mardi Gras

The earliest reporting of a celebrated Mardi Gras occurred approximately 145 miles east of Bourbon Street in what is currently the city of Mobile, AL. In 1703, what was then the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana decided to celebrate “Boeuf Gras,” a traditional feast before the start of the Lenten season. The city soon became home to many firsts, including host of the first official float-containing Mardi Gras parade in 1711 and the creation of the first formal social parading group, the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, in 1830.

Although Mobile’s celebration of the holiday pales economically in comparison to the size of its Gulf sister city, its total crowd estimates for 2016’s season topped 1.17 million people and has an economic impact of over $408 million for the state of Alabama. With over 60 registered Mardi Gras organizations and 40 parades listed for the 2017 season, Carnival’s home city is proud to host the two-week-long party for centuries to come.

New Orleans and the Birth of “Super-Krewes”

Since its birth in the Crescent City, New Orleans’s iteration of Mardi Gras transformed into the celebration we know today with the help of an astounding array of factors, both through the public and private domain. At its start, Mardi Gras began in New Orleans when members of Mobile’s Cowbellion Society travelled westward in 1835 to help establish the Mistik Krewe of Comus, the oldest surviving Carnival organization in the city. Before the height of the Civil War, Comus launched its first full-fledged parade in 1857 and continued to do so until 1990.

Both festivities in New Orleans and Mobile felt relatively similar in both size and style until the 1960s evolution of the “Super-krewe.” Combined with the 1966 arrival of the New Orleans Saints, a massive expansion of convention centers and hotels, and a 350-1000% increase of local museums and tourist attractions all during the late 1960s, Super-krewe parading organizations such as Endymion and Bacchus revolutionized our concept of the season. By annually inviting celebrities as reigning guest monarchs and an increased float production, Super-krewe parade-viewers from every corner of the country could bond over mutual excitement for each year’s parade theme and host. New Orleans has never been a stranger to inviting celebrity guests--In 1872, the city officially incorporated green as well as the traditional Mobilian purple and gold as an official Carnival color in honor of the visiting Grand Duke of Russia, Alexis Romanov.

According to the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, Mardi Gras creates over $840 million in annual revenue for the city. By creating a legacy of inviting both celebrities and dignitaries to the city, as well creating a lasting partnership with the local coalitions and entrepreneurs, New Orleans became a beacon of tourism for the Gulf Coast. While both cities share a rich cultural history, they will have to agree to disagree on how has the best show in the Dirty South.

While born and raised in Mobile’s Mardi Gras tradition, Melanie du Mont currently calls New Orleans her home.

Credit goes to New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy by Kevin Gotham, AL.com, and the Mobile Carnival Museum.