March 4th of this year brings us the holiday of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.  In a religious context, Mardi Gras is the final night of celebration for Catholics before they must start the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  While Mardi Gars represents one day, the celebration of Carnival, which culminates in Mardi Gras, can last several weeks.  In fact, many now use the term “Mardi Gras” to reference the entire Carnival festival.  Over time, Fat Tuesday has lost a lot of its original religious meaning here in the United States, and it is celebrated by many who do not identify as Catholic.  In fact, in recent times it has been seen more as an excuse to party.  But in a more important sense, Mardi Gras has become a way for the Delta Mississippi region to celebrate its French and Cajun heritage.
In our time, the city most people associate with Mardi Gras is New Orleans.  To its credit, the Crescent City throws one hell of a party this time of year.  It is also the cultural epicenter of the Delta region.  The Fat Tuesday parades in the Big Easy are some of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, and Bourbon Street has become a worldwide symbol for Mardi Gras celebrations.  New Orleans is not the only major city in the United States with French heritage (both St. Louis and Louisville are named for French monarchs), but it remains the most visible area of French influence on American culture.  That being said, New Orleans did not start the tradition of Mardi Gras in America.  That distinction belongs to another former French colony.
In 1703, the city of Mobile celebrated the first Carnival in America.  This was fifteen years before New Orleans would have its first celebration.  While it doesn’t share New Orleans’ reputation, the Mardi Gras festival in Mobile is still one of the best in America and celebrates the heritage of probably the most unique city in Alabama.  There is a focus on historical tradition in Mobile, which is not absent in New Orleans but does not receive the same amount of attention as some of the more mainstream activities.
Many of the traditions in Mobile center on the city’s mystic societies.  Over 40 mystic societies operate in Mobile, many acting as secret societies, and have been very influential on the culture, economy and politics of the city.  Some of the more notable mystic societies include the Order of Myths, the Knights of Revelry, the Mystics of Time and the Crewe of Columbus.  Each of these societies holds a parade as part of the Carnival festivities.  Aside from Fat Tuesday, the day to be in Mobile for Carnival is Joe Cain Day.  Held the Sunday before Mardi Gras, this day celebrates the man who brought the parades back to the city after the Civil War had halted celebrations for a time.  For more family-oriented fare, one should look to attend Lundi Gras (Fat Monday), the day before Mardi Gras.
So if you’re considering a vacation to celebrate Mardi Gras, I highly recommend you give Mobile some consideration.  The festivals shine a different light on the holiday, and the crowds are definitely more manageable than the ones in New Orleans.  The Gulf Coast region has endured some major disasters over the years, including major hurricanes and the oil spill.  But festivals such as this show the resolve of the communities on the coast to smile in the face of tragedy.  The traditions of Mobile go back three centuries, and they are on full display during the Carnival celebration.

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