Forget about New Orleans. Mississippi has its own Mardi Gras traditions and Carnival season.
Mobile, Alabama may have been the first place to host a Mardi Gras parade and New Orleans has the biggest, most well-known celebration, but Biloxi’s Anna Harris said there’s an argument to be made that Mississippi’s Mardi Gras is the most fun.
I love that different communities and krewes celebrate in unique ways. Here in Biloxi, we kick off Twelfth Night with a special celebration of the reigning King and Queen of carnival, turning off the Christmas lights on the Biloxi Lighthouse and parading to City Hall where they turn on the lights of carnival. It is a special way to begin the season,
— Harris, director of the Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum, said.
Mardi Gras in Mississippi is almost exclusively a southern county tradition. Part of that is due to coastal Mississippi’s proximity to Mobile and New Orleans, the primary reason is the celebration’s roots in French Catholicism.
“Today, Mardi Gras is very much a cultural holiday celebrated by people of all backgrounds, but it began as a Catholic holiday. Carnival is the season that begins on the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, the end of the Christmas season. The season runs through Mardi Gras Day, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Christian Lent,” Harris said.
The state’s small Catholic population mainly live in the southern part of the state.
“Mardi Gras was hugely popular in France during the 17th and 18th centuries and the French continued celebrating in their new American territories. Many other areas of Mississippi did not see the influx of early French settlers, and consequently, did not have those early ties to Mardi Gras,” Harris said.
The City of Biloxi mounted its first city sponsored parade on March 3, 1908, marking the official beginning of Mardi Gras in Mississippi, Harris said.
This first parade was led by the reigning royalty King Bienville, later changed to King d’Iberville, and Queen Ixolib, which is Biloxi spelled backwards. The parade also included a grand marshal, 17 floats, 50 flambeau carriers, and the Sun Herald newspaper’s 12-piece band. The annual parade was formalized into an organization in 1916 when the Biloxi Carnival and Literary Association was incorporated. As the celebration spread beyond Biloxi, this group was renamed the Gulf Coast Carnival Association making it the oldest carnival organization in the state, Harris said.
About an hour before 2022 Gulf Coast Carnival King D’Iberville Bobby Knesal and 2022 Carnival Queen Ixolib Madison Warren climbed aboard a float to kick off Biloxi’s carnival season, they patiently posed for photos at the Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum.
Knesal, 67, and Warren, 24, are both from Gulfport.
Warren said she first knew she wanted to be Queen of Mardi Gras after her father took her to her first Mardi Gras ball in 2011 when she was 13.
“My dad was a duke, and he took me to the ball. I looked at the queen at the ball and just pointed to her and told my dad that I wanted to be that one day,” Warren said.
Warren’s father told her that the maids in the organization have more fun and there was a lot more work to being the queen.
“That didn’t matter to me. This has been such a special time,” Warren said.
Knesal said he began his official Marid Gras participation in 2007 as a duke.
“I’ve been married for 41 years. And our wedding anniversary is on Feb. 19, Mardi Gras weekend,” Knesal said.
Both Knesal and Warren waved to the crowd on the streets from the Biloxi Visitors Center across from the city’s lighthouse — where they turned off the city’s Christmas lights — to Biloxi City Hall, where they, along with maids, captains, and dukes, turned on the lights of Mardi Gras.
Since 1908, the celebration has grown to include over 40 different krewes across the three coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson. The word krewe was first coined by the Krewe of Comus in New Orleans and is a private social club dedicated to the celebration of Mardi Gras.
In 1922, the female krewe of Les Masquees was formed in Biloxi making it the first private krewe in the Mississippi, Harris said.
Les Masquees was quickly followed by the first men’s krewe, the Krewe of Mithras, which held their first ball in Biloxi in 1924.
Harris is a member of the Krewe of Les Masquees and the Gulf Coast Carnival Association.
“Les Masquees is a ladies krewe that is especially dear to my heart. We are celebrating our 100th year as the oldest private krewe in Mississippi! It is a joy to share this krewe with both my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and many of my closest childhood friends,” Harris said.
Harris is the director of the Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum. She said she loves her job.
“Throughout my career I worked as a curator in fine art museums and galleries. Combine that with my family’s long history in Mardi Gras and this position was the perfect fit! I love to share my love of Mardi Gras and learn more about the 40 different unique krewes we have in Coastal Mississippi,” Harris said.
Mardi Gras Fast Facts
- Origin: Mardi Gras can be traced back to the very beginning of the French influence in the Gulf South. In 1698, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was sent by the French King Louis XIV to find the end of the Mississippi River. He landed on Ship Island south of present-day Biloxi, on Feb. 10, 1699. It was during this trip, on March 3, 1699, that he commemorated Mardi Gras just south of the Mississippi River, making d’Iberville and his party the first to celebrate the holiday in the Americas. Mardi Gras parties and parades were held in Biloxi during the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1908 that the first organization was established.
- Twelfth Night: A celebration on Jan. 5 that marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season and the end of the Christmas season. The season lasts until Ash Wednesday, the day before lent.
- Krewe: A club that is formed for the specific purpose of celebrating Mardi Gras in a particular way.\
- Floats: Decorated fire engines and hook-and-ladder trucks served as floats in Biloxi’s first Mardi Gras parades in 1891 and 1892. Later, horses and mules pulled decorated wagons. Artist Salvador Navarro was contracted to design and build elaborate floats for the Biloxi Carnival Association in 1915.
A list of just a handful of parades around south Mississippi, and a new parade in north Mississippi.
- Ocean Springs: February 4. Elks Club Parade 1 p.m.
- Biloxi: February 11. Children’s Walking Parade. 10 a.m.
- Long Beach: February 11. Carnival Association of Long Beach Parade. 6 p.m.
- Laurel: February 11. Krewe of Blue. 6:30 p.m.
- Waveland: February 12. Krewe of Nereids Parade. Noon.
- Ocean Springs: February 17. Ocean Springs Carnival Association Parade. 7 p.m.
- Olive Branch: February 18. 1st Olive Twig Humanitarian Group Mardi Gras Parade. 1 p.m.
- Pascagoula: February 18. Jackson County Carnival Parade. 1 p.m.
- Gulfport: February 18. Krewe of Gemini Carnival Parade. 2 p.m.
- Biloxi: February 18. The Krewe of Neptune. 5:30 p.m.
- Bay St. Louis: February 21. (Mardi Gras Day) Krewe of Diamonds Parade. 1 p.m.
- Biloxi: February 21. (Mardi Gras Day) Gulf Coast Carnival Association Parade. 1 p.m.