Friday, February 17, 2012

Mardi Gras in Natchez and Around the World

Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) or Carnival generally refers to the time between Ephiphany and Ash Wednesday, when popular practices include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, and other celebrations before the penitential season of Lent. It is an important time in most Catholic countries and communities.

The Brazilian Carnaval is their most famous holiday and accounts for 80% of their annual beer consumption and 70% of their annual visitors. The celebration in Rio de Janeiro is the largest carnival in the world.

The Carnival of Venice is one of the oldest in Italy (12th century), and the subversive nature of the festival is reflected in the many laws created over the centuries in Italy attempting to restrict celebrations. Carnival of Viareggio is the most famous one in Italy.

Mardi Gras arrived in the United States along with the French. The settlement of Mobile AL became the first capital of the territory of Louisiane in 1702. The next year was the first celebration of Mardi Gras in the US. In 1720, Biloxi became the capital, and the Mardi Gras followed, as it did when New Orleans became the capital in 1723. Mardi Gras is celebrated all along the Gulf Coast, although most Americans associate it with New Orleans.

Elodie Pritchartt's aunt in
1909 Mardi Gras Parade
The first celebration of Mardi Gras in Natchez may have been in 1875, according to Natchez: An Illustrated History by David Sansing, Sim Callon, and Carolyn Vance Smith.

"In 1875 Natchez became the first town in Mississippi to hold a Mardi Gras celebration. Rex and his retainers arrived at the Natchez landing on a steamboat appropriately named “Royal Steamer.” In the evening following a downtown parade, the Italian Society of Natchez held a gala Mardi Gras ball."

The diary of Rev Joseph Buck Stratton has this description from 1898.
"Today was a public holiday devoted to the celebration of the rites of what is known in this region, once dominated by the French and Spaniards, as Mardi Gras. General decoration of buildings took place, processions of the Fire companies, military, trades, maskers, etc. occupied the day and the population of the town and country filled the streets. At night a beautiful torch-light procession in which the king of the Carnival presided, traversed the streets. It was composed of a number of floats on which a succession of tableaux – historical and other was displayed greatly to the delight of the spectators. The pageant was elaborate and tasteful and exceeded everything of the kind which had ever been witnessed in Natchez. A grand ball at the Institute Hall closed the exercises. It is supposed such saturnatia pay financially. It is more than doubtful of the pay morally; “in like manner did not our Fathers”.
Mimi Miller, Executive Director of Historic Natchez Foundation, is quoted in an article in County Living, where I also found the quotes above and the photo.
"A major fire broke out during the festivities in 1909 and the fire trucks had been appropriated as floats. Needless to say, the fire caused a lot more damage than it might have otherwise. The fire and the boll weevil, which first appeared in Mississippi in a Natchez area cotton field in 1907, caused the demise of Mardi Gras. When it was reborn in the early 1980s, the first krewe named itself appropriately--the Krewe of Phoenix.".
And that krewe rolls out once again in Natchez today at 5 pm through downtown. Don't miss it!

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