You hear it said every year during Carnival time. Someone will tease that Mardi Gras, the celebration for which New Orleans takes so much pride, originated in Mobile, Alabama. At its birth, the argument would imply, Carnival was nourished not by the Mississippi River but by Mobile Bay.
Is it true? The answer is a cautious one that needs explanation. What did originate out of Mobile was a tradition of masked marches, originally at New Years and then moved to Mardi Gras Day. The most notable was the Cowbellians, who first hit the streets near midnight on New Years Eve 1831. It was from the Cowbellians that the Mobile-based tradition of masked parades grew.
(Overlooked in previous Carnival histories, but certainly important to the story, is that the practice of masking on New Years resembles mummery, an ancient European tradition in which the everyday folks would masquerade to start the New Year and frolic around town, stopping at people’s houses to offer antics in return for libations. An active Mummers scene developed in Philadelphia and was likely carried to the Gulf South by expatriates. The organizer of the first Cowbellians march was from Pennsylvania.)
Now the scene switches to New Orleans and the year is 1857. That’s when the Mistick Krewe of Comus originated. We know that there were some former Cowbellians involved in Comus’ planning and that for its first parade the krewe did borrow props and costumes from the Mobile group. We also know that Mobile established the idea of Carnival organizations being structured as secretive men’s clubs. The Alabama city has even been referred to as “The Mother of Mystics.”
Once the seed was planted in New Orleans, however, it developed its own characteristics and style and, like a wildfire, spread rapidly. From the Comus adaptation came the word “krewe,” as well as the template for all Carnival parades that would follow from 1857 through the present.
Fifteen years later the Rex organization, with help from Comus, would begin. The newly anointed “King of Carnival” selected purple, green and gold as the season’s colors and “If Ever I Cease to Love” as its anthem. Through the years Rex, it is believed, would be the first to introduce the custom of throws tossed from floats and most certainly originated the doubloon. New Orleans was a big and busy port with lots of tourism. It would see its Carnival copied and imitated elsewhere.
Today, just about everywhere that Mardi Gras is celebrated, certainly in North America, borrows from the New Orleans celebration including the colors, the throws, the word “krewe” and even King Cakes, which were a French invention but popularized and given their own style in this city.
Much of the Mobile Mardi Gras today borrows from New Orleans. The parades are similar and the flags wave with the New Orleans Carnival’s colors. New Orleans float builders have even built some of the Mobile parades.
So, what can truly be said of the relationship between Mobile and New Orleans? Mobile was father of the early Carnival. New Orleans is father of Carnival as it would evolve. Each was father of the other. It is a bizarre relationship perhaps best understood by mothers of mystics.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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