The terms "Mardi Gras", "Mardi Gras season", and "Carnival season", refer to
events of the Carnival
celebrations, beginning on or after Epiphany and ending
on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday",
referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods
before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which started on Ash Wednesday.
Related popular practices were associated with celebrations before the fasting
and religious obligations associated with the penitential season of Lent. Popular
practices included wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions,
dancing, sports competitions, parades, etc.
In many areas, the term "Mardi Gras" has come to mean the whole period of activity related to the celebratory events, beyond just the single day. In some US cities, it is now called "Mardi Gras Day" or "Fat Tuesday". The festival season varies from city to city, as some traditions consider Mardi Gras the entire period between Epiphany or Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday. Others treat the final three-day period before Ash Wednesday as the Mardi Gras.
In Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras-associated social events begin in November, followed by mystic society balls on Thanksgiving, then New Year's Eve, followed by parades and balls in January and February, celebrating up to midnight before Ash Wednesday. In earlier times parades were held on New Year's Day.
Other cities famous for Mardi Gras celebrations include Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Quebec City, Quebec in Canada; Mazatlan in Mexico; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Many other places have important Mardi Gras celebrations as well.
While not observed nationally, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations. Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France's claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Mardi Gras in Mobile is the oldest annual Carnival celebration in the United States, having begun in 1703, The festival was a French Catholic tradition, reflecting the French colonial status of the first capital of La Louisiane. Settlers celebrated until midnight on "Fat Tuesday", before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Carnival and Mardi Gras in Mobile have evolved into a citywide multi-week celebration. The city has declared official school holidays for the final Monday and Tuesday (some include Wednesday), regardless of religious affiliation.
Although Mobile has traditions of secret mystic societies, who hold formal masked balls and create elegant costumes, the celebration has evolved over the past three centuries to showcase public parades where members of societies, often masked, go through the streets on floats or horseback. They toss gifts, called "throws", to the general public. The masked balls or dances, where men wear white tie and tails (full dress or costume de rigueur) and the women wear full-length evening gowns, are oriented to adults. Men who belong to the society wear masks.
Some mystic societies treat the balls as an extension of the debutante season of their exclusive social circles. Various nightclubs and local bars offer their own particular events.
In 1763, Mobile came under British control. Its restrictions on free blacks and racial segregation caused many Creoles to leave Mobile and move west towards New Orleans. In 1780, Spain took control of the Mobile area in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
The Carnival celebration incorporated the Spanish custom of torch-lit parades on Twelfth Night (January 6, also known as Epiphany.) In 1813, Mobile became a United States city, included in the Mississippi Territory. In 1817 it was part of the Alabama Territory. In the Anglican and Episcopal traditions, the day before Ash Wednesday was celebrated as Shrove Tuesday, marked by consumption of rich foods before the fasting practices of Lent.
About 11 years after Alabama became a state (1819), a group of revelers, led by Michael Krafft, who was likely influenced by his Pennsylvania Swedish traditions of celebrating the New Year, stayed awake all New Year's Eve, started a dawn parade on January 1, 1831, making noise with cowbells, hoes, and rakes. The group became the first parading mystic society (or "krewe"), calling themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, in a parody of French. They had annual parades each New Year's Eve.
Nearly 125 years after Mobile's first parade of 1711, the new mystic society from Mobile, the Cowbellion de Rakin Society (1830), took their parade into New Orleans, around 1835. In 1838, people in New Orleans adopted the "European custom of celebrating the last day of the Carnival by a procession of masqued figures through the streets."
In 1843, some men who had been refused membership by the Cowbellions, formed the Mobile "Strikers Independent Society" with their own New Year's parade. However, other men from Mobile formed the New Orleans Cowbellions in 1850, and in 1857, that Cowbellion society, renamed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, held its first parade on Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The Boeuf Gras Society (1711-1861) held their last procession on Shrove Tuesday in 1861, before the American Civil War, and then dissolved.
In 1867, after the War Between the States, Joe Cain and six fellow veterans revived the parades in Mobile on Mardi Gras, riding in a decorated charcoal wagon. That event is celebrated annually with Joe Cain Day (since 1966) and a parade on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Today, many mystic societies operate under a business structure; membership is basically open to anyone who pays dues to have a place on a parade float. In contrast, the traditional mystic societies were social clubs with secret membership lists. Divulging one's membership in a society can be grounds for dismissal.
Some of the newer mystic societies actively recruit prospective members. Some of the older societies have restricted membership, with waiting lists numbering in the hundreds; others restrict members to alumni of particular schools, or other conventions.
The oldest parading society in Mobile is the Order of Myths, founded in 1868. Its Emblem consists of Folly chasing Death around the broken pillar of life, a symbol of Mardi Gras in Mobile. Other notable mystic societies include Knights of Revelry with its Folly dancing on the rim of a huge Champagne Glass, Comic Cowboys, Infant Mystics, Mystics of Time, Crewe of Columbus, Mystic Stripers Society, Order of Inca and Conde Cavaliers.
Ladies' Societies include the Order of Polka Dots, oldest and largest of the Mobile ladies and the Maids of Mirth, whose friendly mystic rivals hit the streets in 1950. Other women's mystic societies who have made a name for themselves include the society with the Grammatically incorrect name, Order of LaShe's (sic.), Order of Athena which kicks off the parades on Mardi Gras Day and Neptune's Daughters. Each of these societies have contributed something to the fabric of Mobile's Mardi Gras tradition.
Party Animals. Sure hope that's Coke in that cup! Where are their mommas?