While the party atmosphere hardly evokes old-fashioned values, the festivities are one the region’s oldest traditions. In 1711, a group of French settlers marched through the streets of Mobile hauling an oversized papier-mâché ox head and distinguishing Alabama as the home of America’s first Mardi Gras parade — a fact Mobilians are quick to remind their neighbors to the west in bigger, flashier New Orleans.
The tradition of Mardi Gras itself runs even deeper. While it’s not a church celebration, the holiday is inextricably linked to the Christian celebration of Easter, even if its contemporary reputation does not reflect it.
The Carnival season ushers in the Christian observance of Lent, with the revelry of Fat Tuesday giving way to the reflection and repentance of Ash Wednesday and six weeks of sacrifice that draw to a close on Easter Sunday, explained Father Bryan Lowe of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Anniston. Fat Tuesday serves then as the last opportunity to splurge before what Lowe calls “a season of sacrifice.”
“Lent is rooted in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert,” Lowe said. “He was preparing for his ministry. We use it as our time of preparation for Easter.”
The traditional Catholic Lenten observance includes fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout Lent. However, Lowe explained that what one chooses to give up is a personal choice. It’s the motivation behind the sacrifice that matters. Many non-Catholics embrace Lent’s message of sacrifice and repentance, he said, often choosing to give up items such as red meat, sweets, caffeine, even Facebook.
“It’s about this internal change,” Lowe said. “You make some kind of sacrifice and realize that the things of this world are not as important as the things of God.”
But while Mardi Gras and Lent will forever be linked by their origins, their relationship as it stands today is far less obvious.
April McGinnis, who moved from Jacksonville to Baldwin County last year, participated in her first Fat Tuesday festivities this week in Mobile. The day was cold and rainy, but for her that was part of the fun. She said she and her neighbor, Kevin Holmes, were able to brave the weather for most of the parades. When the rain picked up, “we just duck inside the nearest bar,” she said. “I always have a drink in my hand, and turns out I don’t care so much about getting soaked.”
Holmes, a Mobile native and Mardi Gras veteran who offered to show McGinnis the ropes her first time out, said the rain also made the most coveted parade throws easier to come by.
“We came this close to catching a bean bag chair. A bean bag chair,” he emphasized. “Some years you can’t get them to throw you the Ramen noodles.”
McGinnis, who was raised in a Methodist church, said she has no plans to follow her first Mardi Gras experience with her first experience with Lent. Neither does Holmes, though he said he can see why people might feel compelled to observe Lent after enjoying the pre-Lent party.
“But (Mardi Gras) is not really about that anymore,” he said. “It’s kind of its own thing now.”
It’s unclear how many of the thousands upon thousands of revelers that flock to Mobile, New Orleans and surrounding areas, agree with Holmes that the Mardi Gras is now “its own thing.”
“For some people it’s just another chance to party,” Lowe said.
Doing their own thing for decades is Patrick and Timothy Robbins, who arrived in Mobile from Birmingham on Sunday with just enough time to grab a couple of Long Island iced teas in plastic cups before catching the last Joe Cain Day parade. The brothers, 46 and 43 respectively, have been making the trip down to the Coast for Mardi Gras every year as far back as they can remember. Their parents used to bring them as children, they said.
Tim recalls bringing his kids down for the parades when they were young as well, including his daughter, Brooke, a 2008 graduate of Jacksonville State University whose own 1-year-old daughter will soon become the next generation of Robbins Mardi Gras pilgrims.
“Next year my grandbaby will be down here,” Tim said. “And I’ll have her up on my shoulders catching stuff.”
As Rev. Lowe explained, the original concept of Mardi Gras is not at all similar to the atmosphere of excess and gratification that surrounds the event today.
More in keeping with the holiday’s true purpose, he said, is the less-commonly known tradition of Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. This alternative to Fat Tuesday, was designed to allow families to use up eggs, butter and other items forbidden during Lent that would go bad. The more “low-key” tradition, Lowe said, has been adopted by members of one of Sacred Heart’s weekly prayer groups. Member of another group started a tradition of making homemade masks.
“Mardi Gras has gotten so blown up out of proportion where it’s become just a time of debauchery,” he said.
With the exception of a handful of larger cities that host one or two parades, Mardi Gras celebrations have long been concentrated in Gulf Coast communities. But the holiday’s inspiration is often popping up in unusual spots. Wake and Bake Pizza and Coffee Company in Jacksonville offered customers the traditional Mardi Gras delicacy King Cake throughout the season and featured the New Orleans sounds of Zydeco on Fat Tuesday. Sacred Heart’s Mardi Gras Gala — a hugely successful annual fundraiser that features an open bar, casino games and the purple, green and gold decor synonymous with the Carnival season — enters its 23rd year this month. And JSU’s Marshall County alumni members will gather for their sixth annual Mardi Gras celebration next month at a Cajun restaurant in Guntersville.
Timothy attended a Mardi Gras ball in Birmingham a few years ago. It was a swanky affair, he said, but nothing compares to the original party still being thrown every year in Mobile, he insisted.
Neither of the Robbins brothers have observed Lent in the past, but Pat says he’s thinking of changing that this year.
“I’ve heard people talking about it for so long, I figured I’d give it a shot,” he said. When his brother asks him what he is planning to give up, he answers “coffee,” then quickly explains that he means just coffee, not all caffeine. “I’m still going to drink Cokes and all that.”
With a laugh, Timothy says that his brother has inspired him, and after their three-day holiday in Mobile he too plans to observe Lent.
“Oh yeah,” Pat says. “What are you going to give up?”
“Pork,” he responds with a smile.
Pat hesitates for a moment, then smiles as well. “Hey, you don’t eat pork.”