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Ask Rufus: Celebrating Mardi Gras

 

In 1907 the steamer

In 1907 the steamer "American" ran a special Mardi Gras excursion to Mobile. It was limited to 50 passengers and was complete with music and entertainment for the two day trip down the Tombigbee. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Invitation to a Mardi Gras Ball at the French Opera House in New Orleans. My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, attended Newcomb College in New Orleans, 1908-1913, and often told of the wonderful Mardi Gras Balls at the French Opera House.

Invitation to a Mardi Gras Ball at the French Opera House in New Orleans. My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, attended Newcomb College in New Orleans, 1908-1913, and often told of the wonderful Mardi Gras Balls at the French Opera House.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Fat Tuesday is fast approaching with the end of carnival season and Mardi Gras. Many people, though, do not appreciate the religious meaning of Mardi Gras and the reason for the revelry that ends abruptly at midnight Tuesday. It is often said that Mardi Gras was celebrated in Mobile prior to New Orleans but it is New Orleans that put the celebration on the map. 

 

An article in the March 12, 1859, Yazoo City Democrat attempted to explain the history of Mardi Gras: "Mardi Gras means literally in French fat Tuesday, the name given to the last day (Tuesday) before Ash Wednesday, the first of the forty days fast called Lent, so called because it was the longest of the fasts -- Lent, in old Saxon, meaning long. Mardi Gras, then, being the last day before Lent in which feasting and festive sports were in order - that is, the last day of Carnival, (carne cale, Latin,) or farewell to meat, was naturally made the most of in Roman Catholic churches for a general abandonment to merry making and buffoonery. It has always been celebrated with the greatest eclat in Rome and Venice, and many authorities assert that the festival was derived in Italy from the Saturnalia of pagan Rome, modified by the early Christians." 

 

The February 23, 1901, Grenada Sentinel announced Lenten services at All Saints Episcopal Church and provided an explanation of the meaning of Lent which follows Mardi Gras: "Wednesday last was Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent, which is a period of six weeks preceding the anniversary of our Lord, which is observed by the Catholic Church, the English, or Episcopalians, the Greek and the Roman, throughout the world. The fast was early set apart, and has been kept for about eighteen hundred years, or since the first century, and it corresponds with the fasting of our Lord in the wilderness, and His tempting, and ends as His suffering did, in the glad Hosanna of an Easter day. The word Lent is an old Saxon word and means Spring; and Ash Wednesday is so called from the custom of the Church in the second century when those who were living in Mortal Sin, were shriven, (hence Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras), and then clothing themselves in sack cloth and ashes, began their fast and discipline of Lenten penitence, after which they were admitted to the Easter communions."  

 

Although Mardi Gras had its origins in Christian teachings, like Halloween, secular partying has become what most people associate it with. While it is only in the last century that Halloween has evolved from a religious to a secular festival, Mardi Grass started changing a long time ago. Some of the older 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 of "people who cloth themselves in some grotesque garb and having their features concealed by close fitting mask, visit the houses of their acquaintances with whom they stand on no ceremony and should they feel offended at anything...they revenge themselves by throwing flour in the faces of the offenders." In 1869 the Mobile Register reported of the only disturbance there during Mardi Gras. There women of ill-repute dressed in male attire "drove about the city in carriages, smoking cigars..." stopping at bar-room and drinking themselves drunk. Their conduct was said to have been such "as to excite even the disgust and contempt of men whose ideas of morality and virtue are of a very low order." 

 

Columbians have long enjoyed Mardi Gras. The Memphis Daily Appeal reported in 1874 that there would be a Mardi Gras celebration there. The paper commented; " As Columbus is famed for its hospitality, its charming homes and lovely women, we have no doubt that the seventeenth instant (February 17th, 1874) will be a day to be remembered in the calendar of that delectable village as one fraught with fun and frolic, love and adventure." 

 

With Columbus' cultural and economic ties to Mobile, excursions to Mardi Gras in Mobile were often offered by rail or riverboat. Such was reported in the January 16, 1907, Columbus Dispatch under the headline: Mardi Gras Excursion. "The steamer 'American' will run a Mardi Gras excursion to Mobile, Ala., leaving this city on the morning of February fifth and returning one week after. Two days will be consumed in the trip to the city, arriving there in time for the Mardi Gras festivities and leaving immediately afterward. The cost for the round trip, including fare and occupancy of state rooms while in Mobile, will be $25.00, and state room reservations can now be made by applying to Mr W. J. McClure, Jr. manager. There will be music and other entertainment provided on the boat, and only fifty passengers will be carried. A delightful time is assured." One can only imagine that it was a most delightful time.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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