The History of Mardi Gras
The origination of Mardi Gras came from the early days of Christianity. Pagan Romans practiced a fertility ritual in early Spring called Lupercalia, a circus-like orgy. The Church fathers decided it would be easier to convert people if some of the pagan customs remained but had a Christian meaning to them. Thus, based on the wild celebrations associated with Lepercalia, Carnival was born. It was celebrated the week before the beginning of Lent, the penitential time before Easter.
The Mardi Gras celebration was brought to New Orleans from a French explorer named Iberville in 1699. France had been celebrating Mardi Gras since the Middle Ages, and Iberville's arrival to the mouth of the Mississippi River coincided with the day of the holiday. When he and his men set up camp on the river's bank, he christened the spot Point du Mardi Gras. He was within 60 mile of present day New Orleans at the time.
Early Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans were mostly masked balls. The balls were banned for a time but reinstated in the early 1800's. Street celebrations began a few years later. As the street celebrations grew, they became violent. There was an outcry from the press to once again ban Mardi Gras. Fortunately, a few New Orleanians got together and formed the Comus organization in 1857 to save Mardi Gras. They reorginized the celebrations, added the themed float parades, formed secret Carnival societies, called Krewes, and staged balls again.
Today, the New Orleans Carnival is a long series of balls and parades over a period of many weeks climaxing with the celebration on Mardi Gras day (Fat Tuesday) when Rex, King of the Carnival, receives the keys to the city and rules for the day.