My grandmother Lenore Hardy Billups majored in art at Newcomb College in New Orleans 1908-1913. In his office, I came across this invitation to a Mardi Gras ball at the French Opera there.
We are in the middle of Mardi Gras or carnival. Many people, however, don’t appreciate the religious significance of Mardi Gras and the reason for the celebration ending abruptly at midnight on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras was first celebrated in the United States in Mobile, but it was New Orleans that put the celebration on the map.
An article from March 12, 1859, Yazoo City Democrat attempts to explain the history of Mardi Gras: “Mardi Gras literally means in French Shrove Tuesday, a name given to the last day (Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday, the first of the forty days fasts called Lent, so named because it was the longest of the fasts — Lent, in Old Saxon, meaning long. Shrove Tuesday, therefore, being the last day before Lent when feasting and festive sports were de rigueur, that is, the last day of carnival (carne cale, Latin) or farewell to meat, was naturally used in the Roman tradition. The Catholic churches for a general abandonment to gaiety and buffoonery. It has always been celebrated with the greatest brilliance in Rome and Venice, and many authorities claim that the feast derives in Italy from the Saturnalia of pagan Rome, modified by the early Christians.
On February 23, 1901, the Grenada Sentinel announced Lenten services at All Saints Episcopal Church and gave an explanation of the significance of Lent following Shrove Tuesday: “Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent, which is a period of six weeks preceding the birthday of Our Lord, which is observed by the Catholic Church, the English, or the Episcopalians, Greeks and Romans, throughout the world. part, and has been kept for about eighteen hundred years, or since the first century, and it corresponds to our Lord’s fasting in the wilderness, and to his temptation, and ends like his sufferings, in Hosanna joy of a day of Easter. The word Lent is an old Saxon word and signifies spring; and Ash Wednesday is so called after the custom of the Church in the second century, when those who lived in mortal sin shrivelled ( hence Mardi Gras), then dressed in canvas of sackcloth and ashes, began their fasting and discipline of Lenten penance, after which they were admitted to Easter communions.
Although Mardi Gras has its origins in Christian teachings, like Halloween, the secular holiday has become what most people associate it with. While it wasn’t until the last century that Halloween changed from a religious holiday to a secular holiday, Mardi Gras started changing a long time ago. Some of the earliest celebrations were even crazier than today’s parades, balls and parties.
An 1851 report describing the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans mentioned a traditional custom that “people who dress themselves in grotesque attire, and whose features are concealed by a well-fitting mask, visit the houses of their acquaintances which they do not hang out with without any ceremony, and if they feel offended by anything…they take revenge by throwing flour in the face of the offenders. In 1869, the Mobile Register reported the only disturbance that occurred there during Shrove Tuesday. They were women of “disrepute” dressed in masculine clothes who “tried around town in horse-drawn carriages, smoking cigars…stopping at the bar and getting drunk.” Their conduct would have been of a nature to excite even the disgust and contempt of men whose ideas of morality and virtue are of a very low order.
Colombians have long enjoyed Mardi Gras. The Memphis Daily Appeal reported in 1874 that there would be a Mardi Gras celebration there. The newspaper commented: “As Columbus is famous for his hospitality, charming homes and charming women, we have no doubt that the seventeenth moment (February 17, 1874) will be a memorable day in the calendar of this delightful village as a full of fun and frolicking, love and adventure.Columbus newspapers of the late 1800s and early 1900s were filled with tales of parties in Columbus and local residents partying in Mobile and New Orleans.
With Columbus’ cultural and economic ties to Mobile, excursions to Mardi Gras in Mobile were often offered by train or boat. From the last quarter of the 1800s through the 1900s, the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Southern Railroad, and Illinois Central Railroad all advertised special fares for excursions to Mobile and New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Steamboat trips to the celebrations were also offered.
Such a Tombigbee trip was reported in the Columbus Dispatch of January 16, 1907 under the title: Mardi Gras Excursion. “The liner ‘American’ will make a Mardi Gras excursion to Mobile, Alabama, leaving that city on the morning of February 5 and returning a week later. Two days will be consumed in the journey to the city, arriving there in time for the Mardi Gras festivities and departing immediately afterwards. Round trip cost including fare and stateroom occupancy to Mobile will be $25.00, and stateroom reservations can now be made by speaking to the Manager by MJ McClure, Jr.
There will be music and other entertainment on the ship, and only fifty passengers will be carried. A delicious moment is guaranteed.” One can only imagine the delightful time spent aboard this steamer.
A 1903 article in the Columbus Commercial showed that Mardi Gras and people’s opinions about it have changed very little over the past 119 years. According to the newspaper with the start of the Mardi Gras festivities,
“Every southbound train that leaves the city carries many passengers bound for New Orleans and Mobile, the main cities where carnivals take place. Every winter visitors return from these points declaring how the hotels are so crowded and the accommodations of such inferior character that they will never attend another Mardi Gras celebration, but in the months that follow, they seem to forget about the heartbreaking crowds and the many small annoyances. and remember only the pleasures and merriments of the occasion, so that when in the course of time February rolls around again, they are only too eager for the journey, and travel south again to join the crowd maddening.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. Send your local history questions to Rufus at [email protected]