Beads, balls and Moon Pies: Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala.
Think Mardi Gras and your thoughts are apt to turn to New Orleans, where the celebration of the last day before Lent gives new meaning to the word “raucous.” Fat Tuesday typically becomes a day of parades and revelry, the latter turning the French Quarter into the Southern equivalent of a rave.
About 150 miles north and east is a port city that claims to be the birthplace of the celebration. Mobile may be better known for its profusion of azaleas and nearby Bellingrath Gardens, but the city claims for itself the title of first Mardi Gras in America, placing the origin of the fest in 1703.
Even the boisterous krewes that put on the Carnival parades in New Orleans acknowledge that Fort Louis de la Louisiane — as Mobile was known 300 years ago — deserves the credit for creating the famous celebration.
Brochures tout Mobile’s party as “America’s Original, America’s Family Mardi Gras.” The drunkenness and debauchery that often accompany the revelry in New Orleans are absent here.
“I’ve never seen that in Mobile,” Jack Counts said as he and his two children watched a 2010 parade from the balcony of the stately Battle House Hotel.
THE BEST WAY TO MOBILE, ALA.
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Contintental, American, Delta and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $448.
The Mobile Carnival Museum, 355 Government St., Mobile, Ala., (251) 432-3324, https://www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.com, is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 3 to 12.
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This year’s Mardi Gras festivities begin Feb.18, culminating in Fat Tuesday, March 8. The Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau has a complete list of activities, plus other visitor information at (800) 566-2453, https://www.mobile.org.
“My 7-year-old and 4-year-old are at all the parades, and I don’t feel like it compromises their integrity, or mine,” he added.
The activities culminate with six parades on Fat Tuesday (March 8 this year) — synonymous with Mardi Gras — but the preceding 21/2 weeks, officially known as Carnival, are packed with 30 parades and a bevy of balls. They’re organized by so-called secret societies known as mystics (krewes in New Orleans), with names such as Comic Cowboys and Order of the Polka Dots.
Their faces masked, mystic members ride or stand atop elaborate floats. Eager spectators line the streets, hoping to snare some of the booty that’s tossed into the crowd. It’s almost a competition as folks, arms outstretched over barricades, grab as many beadsnecklaces, souvenir coins, and Moon Pies — a favorite sweet snack of Southerners — as they can.
For those who can’t make it to town during parade season, the Mobile Carnival Museum, in a 19th century home, does an excellent job of sharing the history of this centuries-old tradition.
On display in its various parlor rooms are elaborate costumes worn by past Mardi Gras participants, as well as fur-edged gowns worn by the kings and queens of the gala, invitation-only balls.
The museum doesn’t ignore the fact that, until relatively recently, celebrations here were segregated. Now, though, the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Assn. — formerly the Colored Carnival Assn. — organizes one of the six showcase Fat Tuesday parades. True to its 73-year-old roots, the parade starts in a predominately African American neighborhood before passing through downtown.
Emphasizing the importance of the festivities, Mobile’s public schools are closed on Fat Tuesday and the preceding Monday.
“It’s a kid-friendly environment,” local dad Jack Counts pointed out. “You can have anywhere between 50,000 and 150,000 people on the streets [having] a good time in a clean atmosphere.”
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