Although the word Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday), the origins go further back to the Roman Empire. When Christianity arrived in Rome religious leaders incorporated a blend of pagan celebrations such as the festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia (celebrations of spring and fertility) with new Christian rituals. The Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe, and the tradition of Lent (40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) took hold. The earlier Roman celebrations of fertility and Christianity morphed into a day of excess and debauchery on the day before Ash Wednesday, which was to be known as Shrove Tuesday.
In Medieval France around 1512 Boeuf Gras (Fat Beef) began as a spoof on the Church and its' dignitaries. This was an indulgence of meat and fat before Lent. As this type of celebration was held mostly on the day before Ash Wednesday the term Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) evolved.
As the new world was discovered, France claimed territory along what is now the northern Gulf Coast. The tradition of Mardi Gras followed. In 1702 explorers d'Iberville and Bienville founded Fort Louis de la Louisiana on the Mobile River as the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana, which is now present day Mobile, Alabama. The following year 1703, Frenchman Nicholas Langlois celebrated Shrove Tuesday forming the Societe' de Saint Louise. They celebrated in masked balls. The first known parade was held in 1711 by Mobile's Boeuf Gras Society with 16 men pushing a cart carrying a large papier-mache Bull's head.
In 1780, Spain took control of Mobile. The Spanish Mystic Society (founded by the Eslava family) appeared with torch-lit parades on Twelfth Night (January 6th, also known as Epiphany) in 1793. The Carnival season was now spreading from New Years to Lent.
In 1830, a group of revelers, led by Michael Kraft, stayed awake all New Year's Eve and started a dawn parade on January 1, 1831. They raided a nearby hardware store, took up rakes, hoes, and shovels,..tied cowbells to them and proceeded to wake up the town. The group became the Forerunner of all of the Mardi Gras Mystic Societies in the United States that parade today, calling themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. For the first ten years they paraded on foot with only a few floats.
In 1837 a party marched up camp St. in New Orleans with all sorts of rattletraps and instruments from tin pans,cowbells, to iron hoops. They were referred to as the New Orleans Cowbellions. This continued for many years. In Mobile the Cowbellion de Rakin Society changed their parade from a foot parade to a full float parade with a theme "Heathern Gods, and Goddesses' in 1840. The Strikers Society formed out of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society in 1842, and is the oldest surviving mystic society in the United States. In 1844 a young boy named Joseph Stillwell Cain became one of the founders of Mobile's 3rd mystic society T.D.S (Tea Drinkers Society).
In 1852, members of the Mobile Cowbellions traveled and paraded on foot along with the Bedouin Company, and participated in the first masked ball of the New Orleans Cowbelloins. Samuel Todd, Joseph and William Ellison, and other members of the Mobile Cowbellions moved to New Orleans, and in 1856 they met in Dr. Popes drug store (in the French Quarter) to discuss forming a mystic society. A second meeting was held on Jan. 4, 1857 inviting a group of New Orleans gentlemen to the discussion, and the Mystic Krewe of Comus was formed...New Orleans' oldest, and most prestigious Mardi Gras Society. They received considerable help from Mobiles' Cowebellions, and Strikers Societies...loaning them floats, costumes, and Flambeaux. Comus' first parade and ball were held (titled Demon Actors). Mobiles' Cowbellions attended both events as guest of the Mystic Krewe of Comus. It was from this Krewe that all the other societies in New Orleans branched off of.
After the Civil War in 1868 Joseph Stillwell Cain paraded through the streets of Mobile with the Lost Cause Minstrels to help revive the Carnival season on Fat Tuesday. He was dressed in Native American regalia aboard a coal wagon. He was named "Chief Slacabamarinico". They paraded through 1879 and were known as "Slack and the Tea Drinkers". Today Joe Cain is celebrated as the reviver of Mardi Gras, and Joe Cain Day is one oe the largest and most popular parades, called the people's parade.
Mardi Gras today represents more than just one day of celebration on Shrove Tuesday. It is a whole season of many weeks of balls and parades stretching from New years to Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras parades have grown and multiplied from the ashes of the "Cowbellion de Rakin Society: (1868 Order of Myths), (1869 Infant Mystics), (1871 First Royal Court of King Felix), (1874 Knights of Revelry), (1884 Comic Cowboys), (1922 Crew of Columbus), (1928 Floral Parade), (1938 MAMGA Parade), (1939 Mystic Stripers society), (1948 Mystics of Time), (1949 Order of Polka Dots), (1950 Maids of Mirth), (1954 Order of Athena), (1956 Order of Inca), (1961 Le Krewe de Bienville), (1967 Joe Cain Procession resurrected), (1977 Conde Cavaliers), (1985 Pharaohs), (1989 Order of La She's), (1993 Krewe of Marry Mates), (1995 Neptune's Daughters), (1997 Knights of Mobile), (1997 Mobile Mystical Ladies), (2000 Order of Venus), (2000 Order of Butterfly Maidens), (2002 Order of Angels), (2005 Conde Explorers), (2010 Order of Hebe), (2010 Order of Isis), (2012 Order of Doves resurrected), (2016 Order of many Faces).
For hundreds of years a Mardi Gras-like celebration has been evolving. But America changed it in the most dramatic way. One New Years Eve a few men in Mobile, Alabama celebrating with rakes, hoes, shovels, and cowbells sparked the beginning of the grand parading societies that have spread across the entire northern gulf coast. Without the Cowbellion de Rakins, the Mardi Gras we know today would not exist. Mobile is without a doubt the Mother of the Mystics.