The history of Mardi Gras, which literally is French for Fat Tuesday, dates back well before Europeans came to the New World. In Ancient Rome, Romans celebrated Lupercalia which was a circus-like festival in mid February that was typified by merriment, feasting, dancing, and drinking. The festival, also known as Carnival, was eventually carried over into Christian tradition as a prelude to observing Lent. Since Lent is a period characterized as a season of fasting, penance, and preparation for Easter, Carnival can be seen as the last great indulgence before the fast.
It wasn’t until 1699 that the celebration of Mardi Gras made it to the Americas. During the Middle Ages, Mardi Gras was celebrated in Paris and considered a major holiday. The French explorer Iberville eventually brought the custom to modern day southern Louisiana after sailing into the Gulf of Mexico and beginning an expedition up the Mississippi River. He camped in an area just south of New Orleans and named the site Point du Mardi Gras on March 3, 1699, the day of the Mardi Gras celebration in Paris. Other early explorers celebrated this French holiday on the banks of the Mississippi River near this site.
At the time, New Orleans was a major port servicing South America and the Caribbean. This allowed a blending of French culture with African culture which introduced a beat with rhythm and soul which gave birth to the drums at the parades. The parades were typified by people showing off their elaborate costumes and masks as the festival grew in popularity. However in 1718 when New Orleans came under Spanish rule, the custom street parties and parades were banned. It wasn’t until 1827 that the prohibition against the masked festivals was lifted once New Orleans came under control of the United States.
In the mid-1800’s as the festival was revived, it was faced with a renewed threat of prohibition as the Mardi Gras parties became associated with violent behavior and its reputation deteriorated. So in 1857, several men formed a secret society called the Comus Organization or the Mystick Krewe of Comus that sought to preserve the festival through more careful planning, organization, and management of the celebrations. They were the first to introduce a central, unifying theme around the event with floats and a ball after the parade.
In 1872 the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia visited New Orleans. Since America didn’t have royalty to offer a proper welcome for the Grand Duke, the Krewe of Rex was formed to entertain him by creating a king for the day to be the “King of Carnival.” They were the first to hold an organized daytime parade and introduced gold, purple, and green as the official Mardi Gras colors. It was also rumored that the Grand Duke had an American mistress lover who may have visited the city while the Grand Duke was visiting. Rex, perhaps in mockery, introduced “If Ever I Cease To Love You” as the official anthem to Mardi Gras.