Long ago, a group of Gulf Coast residents looked out on a bleak winter day and decided it was time for a celebration. They popped a few corks, tuned up the instruments, gathered in front of their crude cabins and danced, sang and laughed in the dirt street.
The tradition already centuries old was introduced to America.
The question almost three centuries later is who has the best claim to that introduction. Where is the home of Mardi Gras in America?
We hear the debate every year about this time. Mobilians, perhaps irked that most people think of New Orleans when the mention of Mardi Gras comes up, point out that Carnival was being celebrated on the Alabama Gulf Coast more than 300 years ago, in 1703, years before the Crescent City was anything more than a swampy bend in the river.
New Orleanians meanwhile, point to the legend that French explorers celebrated the season while exploring the Mississippi River south of their city even earlier, in 1699. Bienville named the site, about 60 miles downriver from present New Orleans, Point du Mardi Gras.
Back on the Alabama Gulf Coast, Mobilians bring up their tradition of parades and street celebrations that go back more than 180 years. Michael Krafft, a Mobile cotton broker, was walking home from a dinner when he decided to appropriate a rake and cow bells from a hardware store display. He and spectators began parading through the streets.
Residents decided they wanted more cow bell on the streets and continued the tradition and the Cowbellion de Rakin Society was born in 1830.
New Orleans points out that the Cowbellions and other Mobile groups held their early parades on New Years, not Mardi Gras.
New Orleans first group to parade with floats, however, the Krewe of Comus, was formed with the aide of a group of Mobilians, including some former Cowbellions, in 1857.
It doesn’t matter.
Mobile and New Orleans each have unique Mardi Gras traditions, French Quarter walking clubs or the Joe Cain procession. Carnival is better for all of them.
New Orleans is bigger. Mobile is older. Which is better is up to the people celebrating.
It’s a contradiction to take anything about Mardi Gras too seriously.
Anyone who grew up in either city, or any of the other communities where Mardi Gras has been celebrated for generations, knows that the celebration isn’t about debates or arguments. It’s also not just drunken tourists on Bourbon Street.
It’s magic. Not the occult or mythical kind, but the real variety created by the imaginations, wonder and joy of people gathered together for something that doesn’t seem to quite make sense.
Wherever the music plays, children shriek at the first distant lights of the approaching parade and people continue to celebrate life in the dead of winter, that’s the real home of Mardi Gras.
Guy Busby is a writer living in Silverhill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at guybusby.com.