As the third largest Mardi Gras in the United States (New Orleans, LA and Mobile, AL are 1st and 2nd, respectively), today’s parties and parades that indulge in revelry and debauchery are larger than the first celebration that dates back to 1867, yet still just as spirited.
But before we explore the history of this festival on Galveston Island, we should probably understand the origins of Mardi Gras.
What Exactly IS Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras translates from French to mean“Fat Tuesday,” also known as Shrove Tuesday in the Christian religious tradition. The date of celebration changes each year, as it depends upon when Easter falls.
Fat Tuesday arises from the custom of parading a fat ox through the streets on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent. Lent is a religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar representing the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday.
The spirit of Mardi Gras lies in eating, drinking, and getting a little wild, in an attempt to satiate the desires of the flesh, before taking part in the abstinence that is observed during the Lenten Season. The tradition of making merry before a period of fasting dates back thousands of years to ancient Rome. Commonly celebrated in Roman Catholic communities across the world, the most famous Mardi Gras party occurs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
How did Mardi Gras make its way to Galveston?
Records indicate that the first Mardi Gras celebration on the island took place in 1867. It included a theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s “King Henry IV” and a masked ball at Turner Hall, currently at Sealy and 21st Street. King Henry is said to have been played by Alvan Reed who at the time was a justice of the peace, weighing in at 350 pounds!
By 1871, the event had grown in popularity and was supported financially by two rival Mardi Gras societies, otherwise known in the Mardi Gras world as “Krewes.” The Knights of Momus and the Knights of Myth both put on parades at night, along with masked balls that included detailed glamorous costumes and elaborate invitations. Parades at night included horse-drawn wagons and torches of fire to light up the night. Themes of the parades and parties during these times included “The Crusades,” “Ancient France” and “Pocahontas,” to name a few.
As the years rolled on, the reputation for Galveston’s Mardi Gras grew, as did the pomp and razzle-dazzle. In 1872, newspaper reports stated that the Mardi Gras celebrations in Galveston “promised to eclipse anything ever attempted on Texas soil!” The new architectural structure of the Tremont Opera House was decorated with caged canaries by the hundreds, and it provided the perfect backdrop for the evening ball, whose theme was “The Pleasures of the Imagination.”
By 1880, the street parades had become too expensive and extravagant to continue, although masked balls continued through the end of the century. 1917 marked the first official appearance of King Frivolous and his court, who arrived via a “royal yacht.” He was given the keys to the city by the then-major, thus beginning a tradition that continues today by the Krewe of the Knights of Momus.
With World War II causing a shortage of men and materials, by February 1941, the demise of Mardi Gras as it was once celebrated in Galveston began, and celebrations were kept to a minimum. Mardi Gras wasn’t forgotten, but parties were held privately by clubs such as Treasure Ball and the Galveston Artillery Club.
Mardi Gras as we know it in Galveston today was fully resurrected in 1985. Businessman and philanthropist George P. Mitchell, who was born in Galveston and passed away in Galveston in 2013, and his wife Cynthia, spearheaded the resurrection of a city-wide Mardi Gras party. The grand opening of their Tremont House and all its splendor in the historical Strand District provided the spark that re-ignited the flame 30 years ago, bringing this celebration back into its full glory as we know it today.
If you do partake of Texas’ grandest Mardi Gras celebration in Galveston, have a fun and safe time – don’t forget your glitter and glamour!