To many it is a Golden Goose, to some a dirty chicken. It's a financial boom. It's a drain on city coffers. It's a great tension reliever. It's a cause of crime. It's a family affair. It's something you don't want your children to attend - and you wouldn't even think of going. It's something you don't want to miss. Not ever. It's the most singular, the most illogical whoop-de-doo, the most praised, the most cursed, in short, it's the most controversial and exciting event happening in the United States today. And what's more, it has been that way for almost 300 years! That's Mobile's Mardi Gras, a paradoxical party most of the country does not even know exists. Never mind that it was in Mobile in 1703 that the very first Mardi Gras celebration was held on what is now American soil. And it must be noted that New Orleans, Mobile's younger sister city, was not founded until 1718. Case closed on that argument. Even most Mobilians don't understand it, even those who keep the festival. They don't understand its roots or the reasons behind its celebration. Most don't really care about roots or reasons, only that the festival is a part of their very being and that they love it dearly or hate it with a passion.
Mardi Gras is almost totally privately financed, yet the city is heavily involved with its staging and reaps financial rewards - or, in some eyes, bears the financial burden of helping to put the show on the road. It's been called the "Greatest Free Show on Earth". It is said to generate in excess of 25 million dollars in benefits to the City of Mobile. The Chamber of Commerce touts it as a financial boom while others say it costs too much in overtime pay for police and clean-up crews and is a drain on city coffers preventing other vital services from being performed. Some say it is a time which invites trouble of all kind and brings the criminal element to town. Others, psychiatrists among them, say it is a great safety-valve for the city and actually helps to keep crime down over the long-haul.
The word "Mardi Gras", to be sure is French for Fat Tuesday and it was from France that the observance came to Mobile. But a Frenchman would hardly recognize the celebration Mobile-style. Neither would the Spanish who instituted the torch-lit night processions. Nor would the British who used up all the fat in the house before the Lenten season by making pancakes on "Shrove Tuesday" or Pancake Day. The German influence of Fasching is present, but carried on only by an unlikely group of rowdy cowboys and girls from a local swamp of some repute, ill or otherwise. It is a time when locals cheer, grovel or stand in homage as a strange array of revered and sometimes bazaar characters - jesters, kings, queens, peacocks, gypsy queens, Indians, ancient gods and goddesses, long-dead men and women of history, alley-cats, pharaohs and Inca gods - promenade around the ballroom floor.
The "Blue Bloods" and Native Mobilians claim it as their own, but not one "Native" had a major part in its history for the first 163 years of its 289 year presence in the city. And, not a single "Blue Blood" can be found in the beginning annals of the festival in the Port City. Even the world's first mystic society, the renowned Cowbellion de Rakin Society was the results of a one-eyed Pennsylvania Yankee cotton broker getting a little imbibed with a few of his friends on New Year's Eve of 1830. And the society which today is considered to be the most social of them all was begun by a lowly bank runner in the years following the War Between the States. To be sure, much of the celebration is now their domain and the contributions of Old Mobile to Mardi Gras are immense and invaluable. But it is not their celebration alone - never was - never will be. It's been touted as a great tourist attraction, but with few exceptions, tourists can only watch the parades as most Balls are strictly by invitation only. And the downtown hotels are usually so full of locals during the season, there is seldom room for visitors at the inn.
One of Mobile's largest birth-rate months is traditionally November - nine months following the Mardi Gras season. Opponents say "What else can you expect for Mardi Gras' roots lie in the ancient Egyptian fertility festivals?" Many think it's a religious festival - primarily Catholic. After all, it is placed annually just prior to the beginning of that austere period of Christian Lent. Others say the festival is "not of God" and cite the aforementioned ancient fertility festivals which admittedly have contributed to some of today's traditions. The scriptures, they also say, seem to condemn such revelings in Galatians 5:21 and I Peter 4:3. Many take it for granted. Others work on it and for it throughout the year. Many earn their living from it. Other spend their savings on it. Still others run from it to ski the blistery trails of Colorado, while some will fly in at considerable expense and inconvenience to experience just one day of the fun. To many it is a dream. To some, a nightmare. It's both predictable and unpredictable. It's illogical, but at the same time methodical in the set patterns of its rituals.
Technically Mardi Gras is only one day (Remember what it means in French?), but every masked event from November to April is referred to as a Mardi Gras parade or ball. In reality, all events, save for those on the great day itself, are Carnival events. Unless, of course they occur before January 6 or after Mardi Gras - then they are merely Carnival-like or Mardi Gras-like events. Understand? Then there are those who say Carnival in Mobile does not begin on Twelfth Night at all, but the 11th day of the 11th month. If you buy into this, disregard the portion of this paragraph which will conflict with your view. Carnival is viewed to be a time of frivolity where all reason and day to day cares are abandoned and misrule the order of the season. It is also very much regulated and restricted by authorities. In fact authorities have been trying to eliminate the criminal element in the festival in Europe as far back as the 1400's. But, as this element has not been eliminated in other areas of daily life, should it come as a surprise that it occasionally, however rarely, rears its ugly head during Carnival? Or the Super Bowl? Or political campaigns? Or church? The mystic societies are "secret" but the name of the person chosen by each leader is printed, oft times preceded by a Mr. or Mrs., for all to see in the local papers. A little deductive reasoning and the secret is unmasked. And why do the officers of the various mystics seem to get on as many mailing lists as officers of other un-secret civil or social organizations? This is one of life's unexplained phenomenon as their identities are officially "unknown to the public". Even at death only the words "member of a mystic society" are printed in the obits. Can it be assumed that all the guests who see these "secret" members at the Balls never reveal this knowledge to "outsiders"? Some have gone to unusual extremes to conceal their identity, however, as in the case of the men's society whose members donned white tie and tails so they couldn't be distinguished from their male guests. And, as you know, all men look pretty much alike in swinging monkey suits. On the subject of monkey suits, did you know that Mobile uses more full dress, white tie and tails, than any other city in the country except Los Angeles? Where, other than Mobile, can you find a truck driver from Theodore, a fisherman from the Bayou or a used car salesman from the Parkway with a set of tails in his closet just like those his blue blood cousin from Spring Hill has?
And it's a time when many of Mobile's leading citizens (and those pretending to be or wish that they were leading citizens) attired in feathers, fur, tights, sequins, satin or lace let themselves be cheered, bowed to, and acknowledged as King, Queen or Leader of the Ball!
It is one of Mobile's biggest revenue generating industries, albeit not without its share of nay-sayers. It's a celebration most cities would love to have as their own and yet one which would be impossible to organize anew by any government and private industry task force. Remember this is a festival whose public display of parades goes on almost daily for a full two weeks and whose grand masked Balls begin in November and conclude in April. It has been around almost three hundred years in Mobile and has evolved in its scope throughout that time. With Mardi Gras, tradition is change. If a city wishes to hire a consultant and a few centuries to wait, have at it!
It has as one of its most visible symbols, Folly, a jester, who in earlier times would beat those approaching the Throne of his King with animal skins as a form of atonement. Today he beats Death, a skeleton figure, with cow bladders for similar reasons, but few really know this "Folly figure" symbol was chosen for its double meaning. His medieval roots concealed from the Union occupying forces the fact that Folly, in 1868, was symbolic of the Old South and his arch rival, Death, represented his hated enemy the damn Yankee. Thus, on Mardi Gras evening, even during Reconstruction, the South would emerge triumphant, at least to those "in the know".. In modern Mobile hardly anyone is aware of this or cares. The original reasons are no longer important or relevant to the revelers. And like it was in the beginning, the symbol is again concealed.
Its heroes are paradoxes as well. Take Michael Krafft, the one-eyed Yankee who, as a young man on New Year's Eve 1830 overdid his celebrating and, with a few of his friends, some cowbells, rakes and hoes, proceeded to awake most of the tiny city and the Mayor as well. His "escapade" led to the founding of the first mystic society, the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, from which all others in Mobile, New Orleans, St. Louis, Tampa, Pensacola, Fairhope, Montgomery, Birmingham, Biloxi, etal have sprung. Then there is old Joe Cain, the town clerk who, while the city was occupied by Union troops in 1866, made a political statement by riding through the streets on Fat Tuesday as the Chickasaw Indian Chief Slacabamorinico, a leader of a tribe who had never surrendered or had been defeated in battle. He revived the Mardi Gras celebration for future generations in the process. Think about it. First, Kraftt, woke up the Mayor in the wee hours - an event which was to become, in the words of Louis de V. Chaudron, "...a deed pregnant of results to succeeding generations". A young businessman thus literally changed the way of life for an entire section of this country. Then Cain, in feathers and a skirt, defied the United States Government, but fortunately for him, like many today, they knew not that he was defying and he got away with it. Mobile would never be the same again. There are others, of course, like Dave Levi from New York City, who in 1874 brought "absurdity pure and simple" to the streets of Mobile with the Comic Cowboys depiction of "Dr Cutter's Wildest Westest Show". The Cowboys, often in trouble with the censures for their "pull no punches", Feast of Fools element are led through the streets each Mardi Gras by their Queen "Little Eva", the burliest man ever to don falsies and wave a toilet plunger scepter. Some of the city's best leaders were thrilled to have been selected to rule over the Cowboys and proudly wore the undergarments of Eva through the streets of Mobile in front of tens of thousands of spectators. And we can't forget Julian Lee "Judy" Rayford, the local historian, author and forklorist, who, after twelve years of futility, had the remains of Joe Cain and that of his wife Elizabeth exhumed from their resting place in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Bayou la Batre. Judy, being the character he was, personally carried Joe Cain's skull back from the Bayou in the pocket of his coat to Mobile where the bones were reinterred in the Old Church Street Graveyard in late 1966. A grand Jazz Funeral Procession on Mardi Gras Sunday of 1967 was the beginning of what is now the wacky, wild and wonderful "holiday for all the people", Joe Cain Day which celebrated its 30th Anniversary in 1996. So old Joe Cain was reburied for the sake of a party, which for many years was held in the graveyard, much to the dismay of some. But that is only part of the tale. It was later discovered that Judy had re-buried Joe and Elizabeth in the wrong plot. So, once again, during 1967, the remains were exhumed and brought back across the graveyard and reinterred in the Cain family plot near his parents. So, Joe Cain now has the dubious honor, thanks to Judy Rayford, as having been one of the few fellows to be buried three times. How many more Joe, How many more? Julian Lee Rayford now lies in an adjacent grave near his hero. He has only been buried once.
The crowds must be mentioned for no ordinary spectators are they. As if a single organism, the entire crowd undulates to the beat of the high school band or jumps in unison for the oncoming onslaught of moon pies, beads, candy or coins. Almost forty years ago one crowd was even known to let up a load cheer as Leonard, the famed float-pulling Mardi Gras Mule who hated Mardi Gras, would literally sit down on the job. If that wasn't good clean fun, what is? And the moon pies. What piece on Mobile Mardi Gras would be complete without mention of the "official" food. Discovered as a parade throw quite by accident when mystic maskers began searching for a good, inexpensive item to replace the "banned" boxes of popular caramel corn - Cracker Jack - an item that would carry to the back of a large crowd. It was a most illogical and unlikely choice. Not only does a moon pie smush easily in the crush of the crowd, but they taste terrible. They make dry oatmeal a gourmet delight. But who can argue with success? Estimates say nearly a quarter of a million of the pies fly from the floats each day during Carnival's two week run. And then there is the good King. The festival is ruled over by a monarch whose "grandfather" first reigned in 1872. As the "grandson", King Felix III has been coming to his Capitol City since 1903. He officially arrives at noon on the day before Mardi Gras Tuesday itself, but has, in fact, already been in town for two days to attend his coronation, and that of his queen, whom he won't meet until Monday, which was held the preceding Saturday. Got it?
Confused? Don't be. Remember during Mobile's paradoxical party - Mardi Gras - nothing is as it seems. Or is it?