Foil packs of MoonPies and shiny strings of plastic beads sailing through the air from the hands of masked float riders is such an ingrained part of Mobile’s culture that we take for granted that there are times that folks who aren’t native to the Gulf Coast or to Mobile have no idea what it means when we say that we celebrate Mardi Gras.
Where Does Mardi Gras Come from?
Mardi Gras has roots in the Catholic Church as well as in secular culture.
• Mardi Gras festivities take place over the course of several days and weeks.
• It starts on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) and lasts until Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras Day.
• The date of Fat Tuesday changes each year as it is based on the date of Easter Sunday.
• In the mid-second century, it’s documented that Romans followed a period of festive merriment with a Fast of 40 Days.
• Mardi Gras takes place during “Ordinary Time” in the Catholic Church, which is the time between Christmas (Advent) and Easter (Lent).
• The Bible doesn’t endorse activities some indulge in as part of their Mardi Gras celebration, so many who celebrate Mardi Gras in affiliation with the Catholic faith aim to avoid the hedonistic rituals sometimes associated with Mardi Gras.
• Because Mardi Gras festivities cease promptly at midnight on Ash Wednesday, many consider Mardi Gras a “last hurrah” before engaging in a 40 day period of reverence and clean living.
The Difference Between Carnival & Mardi Gras
So, you might hear carnival and Mardi Gras used during Mardi Gras. There are some technical differences. Carnival refers to the entire season of Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is technically only one day, Fat Tuesday. However, it’s very common for folks to refer to the entire season as “Mardi Gras”.
You may also hear Mobilians say they’re going to the “Boom Boom.” This refers to the carrying beats of the drum lines and marching bands signaling the approaching parade as they progress through the streets of downtown Mobile.
How Does Mobile Mardi Gras Differ from Other Celebrations?
Like New Orleans, Mobile’s Mardi Gras lasts for several weeks, and like New Orleans, Mobile has been celebrating Mardi Gras for hundreds of years. In fact (and Mobilians are quite proud of this little tidbit), Mobile is the first American city reported to have celebrated Mardi Gras in 1702. Given that Mobile was once the capital of colonial French Louisiana or “New France” (starting in 1702), it makes complete sense that the tradition would have started in Mobile.
Another way Mobile’s Mardi Gras is distinct is that Mobile only has two official colors: purple and gold. Purple is for justice, while gold symbolizes power. Green, which is only an official color in New Orleans, represents faith.
Who is Joe Cain?
Only in Mobile is Joe Cain Sunday celebrated. During times of war, Mardi Gras celebrations cease; Joe Cain revived Mardi Gras in Mobile during a time of Union occupancy.
Historic information shows that Joseph Stillwell Cain was a fun-loving man who liked to be part of social organizations and who liked to have a good time.
While it was once believed that Cain revived Mardi Gras with a near-solo parade through the streets of Mobile in 1866, new research unearthed by the Mobile Mask (Mobile’s leading Mardi Gras authority) reveals that Cain was actually participating in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras that year.
Actually, Cain’s famous parade in a ramshackle wagon is documented to have taken place in 1868. Cain, along with the minstrel band of the Lost Causes (a group of Confederate soldiers), were “gotten up as monkeys” (as in, dressed up as) as they paraded loudly through the streets to the delight and curiosity of many, including a crowd of young boys who followed the wagon.
Per the Mobile Mask, the parade concluded at the Register building where the band treated the occupants to a “monkey serenade”. (You just can’t make this stuff up.)
Cain’s parade only just preceded the Order of the Myth’s parade in New Orleans, which means that arguably, the revival of Mobile’s Mardi Gras would have taken place with or without Cain’s initial event.
That said, even with this new evidence, I don’t think any Mobilian is going to do any less than regard “Joe Cain as the patron saint of Mobile Mardi Gras,” Steve Joynt (the Mobile Mask) says.
What Happens on Joe Cain Sunday?
Joe Cain Sunday is the biggest day of Mardi Gras next to Mardi Gras Day itself. While parades don’t roll out until later on Joe Cain Sunday, Cain’s Merry Widows arrive to the historic Church Street Graveyard where Cain’s remains are located just after 11:00 a.m. It’s a theatrical event.
The widows have been mourning Joe Cain since 1974. Each member of this small society keeps her identity hidden under a black veil as she’s escorted to Cain’s gravesite to pay her respects, to mourn loudly, and to argue with her fellow widows as to whom loved Cain more (because, duh).
Later, the widows greet the crowds of downtown Mobile bestowing a few of their favors upon lucky parade goers before riding in the lead of the People’s Parade, Joe Cain’s popular parade. This year, Joe Cain Sunday will be on Sunday, February 7.
The first parade of Mardi Gras in the Mobile area starts January 9 on Dauphin Island. As they do each year, the Conde Cavaliers kick off Mobile’s Mardi Gras festivities. This year, the parades will start on Friday, January 22, at 6:30 p.m. in downtown. (Download the Mobile Mask app on Apple or Android devices to really stay on top of things).
So, now you know a little bit about Mobile’s family-friendly Mardi Gras, you should definitely come get in the crowds, wave your arms around and shout, “Throw me something, Mister!” as you laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll).
Want to celebrate Mobile Mardi Gras like a local? Well, come on down! Check out the VisitSouth website and the Visit Mobile Bay website to learn more about how to have the time of your life in this charming and historic Southern city.
Photo by Tad Denson, courtesy of the MOBILE BAY Convention & Visitors Bureau