This Alabama Town Is the Surprising Birthplace of Mardi Gras

New Orleans may be the epicenter of Carnival in the US, but another city held the first-ever celebration.

When you think of Mardi Gras, you likely think of New Orleans, beads, and the rowdiness of the French Quarter. The Big Easy has a long and illustrious history with Fat Tuesday, but, believe it or not, it’s not the birthplace of the celebration in America. For that, you have to go about 150 miles east to Mobile, Alabama.

Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to ancient Rome and pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When the Roman Catholic Church rose to power, Church leaders were looking for ways to make it easier for pagans to adopt the faith. Rather than the winter and spring festivals, they encouraged a carnival on the day before Lent, which starts 46 days before Easter.

The practice migrated to other countries with large Catholic populations at the time like France, Germany, Spain, and England. Traditionally, people would binge eat and drink, scarfing down all the meat, eggs, milk, and cheese in their home. The gorging was celebratory, since fish and fasting were close to the only things on the menu until Easter. The practice came to be called Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” in France.

In 1699, a French Canadian explorer with a mouthful of a name, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed on the coast of present-day Louisiana. The spot is about 60 miles south of where New Orleans would eventually be founded, and Bienville named the place “Pointe du Mardi Gras,” because of the impending holiday. The crew celebrated, though it was likely a quieter celebration than today.

In 1702, Bienville founded another town, Fort Louis de la Louisiane. The small settlement celebrated the first official Mardi Gras in what is now the United States in 1703. Fort Louis de la Louisiane eventually turned into Mobile, Alabama and served as the first capital of the original Colony of French Louisiana. The city of New Orleans, for comparison, wasn’t even established until 1718, 15 years after the first Mobile Mardi Gras.

The French, Spanish, British and, eventually, Americans all came through and left their mark on Mobile, changing the way in which the festival is held. Celebrations waxed and waned over the years as the economy rose and fell, wars came and went, but still, Mardi Gras lives on.

Now on Mardi Gras, clusters of costumed people travel from the banks of Mobile Bay on Government Street, up old and tightly crowded Dauphin Street, and into the center of the city. The secret societies that dominate the celebration organize themselves on floats, just as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did before them. Crowds along the street cheer them on and marvel at the costumes, catching trinkets and MoonPies thrown from above.

Fewer balconies line the streets of Mobile than New Orleans, and fewer tourists come to the city for Mardi Gras, but the look and feel is familiar. There are kings and queens, princesses and debutants. Mobile’s Mardi Gras drinking scene lacks 24-hour bars and a rich cocktail history like New Orleans, but it has its own perks. People can buy 16-ounce to-go drinks in plastic and styrofoam cups from licensed bars and restaurants in the downtown district. MoonPies get more attention than cocktails, but bars make MoonPie-inspired cocktails like the ice cream heavy Chrissy and MoonPie Martinis.

“There is no way to truly tell you what it’s like. You have to experience it,” says Steve Joynt, who runs Mobile Mask, the Mardi Gras guide for the area. “From parades to balls to block parties and parties in private homes, Mardi Gras is what each individual makes it.”

Joynt adds, “Mobile’s Mardi Gras is different from others in a thousand different ways, and it’s the same in a few very important ways: It’s a community celebration and an excuse to come together, enjoy each other’s company and have some fun.”

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Nickolaus Hines is a former staff writer at Thrillist.