The streets are swept, the hangovers abated and the ashes have circled the bathtub drain. Adieu, Mardi Gras.
Can we finally dispense of the ersatz “who had it first” argument over pre-Lenten parties in Mobile and New Orleans? Tourism mavens and media outlets alike gladly played the public to mine the teapot-sized tempest for selfish ends this year.
I’m glad to say most folks in either locale just don’t care. Those who enjoy their respective celebrations are content with their decisions and anyone else’s for whatever criteria they choose. In short, they’re adults. “Live and let live” is about as close to the spirit of the occasion as you can get, right?
Still, there’s another side of me that does care about the accuracy but for reasons not involving tourism or bragging rights. It’s the part of me that was a history major.
I believe in the academic integrity of studying our past, though that puts me in a tiny minority. No worries; as someone who writes about arts and science, I’m used to my passions being undervalued by the community around me.
So when I sense those waters purposefully muddied to keep others from seeing all the pieces of a historical puzzle, it’s frustrating. It feels cheap.
The background of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations has grown murkier over the last century. Some of it is honest mistake while some has a less ethical genesis.
The name Ann Pond, Ph.D., should ring familiar to “Artifice” readers. She is the local historian who penned a trio of books on the development of Mardi Gras along the central Gulf Coast, works reviewed and discussed in this space a few years ago.
When I pored through her books, Pond’s research appeared meticulous and thorough. She combed centuries of documents, newspapers, journals and various accounts in tracking down the complicated story about how America’s most idiosyncratic holiday came to fruition in a unique region.
She rooted out references. Rather than rely simply on a book, say, from the 1970s, the historian sniffed out its sources to check for herself. Her work carried the ring of authenticity earned through diligence. Check out a portion of her historical timeline for yourself at mobilemardigrastrail.com.
Pond claimed to find no verifiable documentation Mardi Gras celebrations took place in Mobile prior to 1868. Historical discussions in the decades immediately following that post-bellum birth make no allusion to anything else.
Then, in 1910, historian Peter Hamilton inexplicably suggested Mardi Gras might have been celebrated in Mobile apparently based on little more than assumption. He went on to fold this into books intended for school use though he never supplied evidence for the claim.
In the early 20th century, a local named Francois Diard styled himself an authority on Mobile history. Among his grandiose claims were that Mobile had the first azalea, invented the first gumbo and started pre-Lenten traditions. Diard took an Andre Penicaut account of an August 1703 feast for Saint Louis and twisted it to mean that was the first Mardi Gras event. He later added more spurious assertions easily researched and unverified.
Diard also struck up a friendship with Erwin Craighead, editor of the Mobile Register for 40-plus years. With a powerful ally in his corner, Diard’s version of history gained a foothold.
Before long, reprinted histories of Mobile folded in these new “facts.” Once those disseminated, local lore imbued cultural mythology with the ideas. Later historians would reference the earlier work as if it were a given.
The reality is more complex and interesting. By 1830, Mobile was a boom town. Newly flush transplants formed what we now associate with Mardi Gras — the parades, societies, balls and tableaus — from the customs they brought with them and rituals they adopted, except it was built around New Year’s.
When New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations were so clamorous they were threatened with being outlawed, Mobile’s New Year’s party was used as a template for New Orleans Mardi Gras. Immediately following the Civil War, Mobilians who attended New Orleans Mardi Gras — Joe Cain among them — decided to bring it to the Azalea City. It wasn’t long before it began to eclipse the remaining New Year’s events.
Yes, Mobile is still the Mother of Mystics and yes, New Orleans still had verifiable Mardi Gras first. If you’re stuck on nebulous claims of inception and willing to ignore evidence, you’re missing the point.
Mardi Gras as we know it wouldn’t exist at all without each town’s contributions, both testimonies to American invention and perseverance. They’re equally as important, equally as responsible manifestations of our unique culture.
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