On February 27, 1827, a group of masked and costumed students dance through the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, marking the beginning of the city’s famous Mardi Gras celebrations.
The celebration of Carnival—or the weeks between Twelfth Night on January 6 and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian period of Lent—spread from Rome across Europe and later to the Americas. Nowhere in the United States is Carnival celebrated as grandly as in New Orleans, famous for its over-the-top parades and parties for Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.
Early French settlers brought the tradition of Mardi Gras to the U.S. Gulf Coast at the end of the 17th century. In fact, Mobile, Alabama celebrated its first carnival in 1703. However, Spanish governors later banned the celebrations. After Louisiana Territory became part of the United States in 1803, New Orleanians managed to convince the city council to lift the ban on wearing masks and partying in the streets. The city’s new Mardi Gras tradition began in 1827 when the group of students, inspired by their experiences studying in Paris, donned masks and jester costumes and staged their own Fat Tuesday festivities.
The parties grew more and more popular, and in 1833 a rich plantation owner named Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration. After rowdy revelers began to get violent during the 1850s, a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus staged the first large-scale, well-organized Mardi Gras parade in 1857.
Over time, hundreds of krewes formed, building elaborate and colorful floats for parades held over the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Riders on the floats are usually local citizens who toss “throws” at passersby, including metal coins, stuffed toys or those now-infamous strands of beads. Though many tourists mistakenly believe Bourbon Street and the historic French Quarter are the heart of Mardi Gras festivities, none of the major parades have been allowed to enter the area since 1979 because of its narrow streets.
In February 2006, New Orleans held its Mardi Gras celebrations despite the fact that Hurricane Katrina had devastated much of the city with massive flooding the previous August. Attendance was at only 60-70 percent of the 300,000-400,000 visitors who usually attend Mardi Gras, but the celebration marked an important step in the recovery of the city, which counts on hospitality and tourism as its single largest industry.