With this year’s Carnival season in the past, perhaps we’ve recovered enough to consider the history behind one of the biggest parties of the year. Like the city itself, Pensacola’s Mardi Gras celebration has had boom-and-bust periods, but has developed into something unique among its Gulf Coast contemporaries.
Why we do what we do every Fat Tuesday and during the preceding weeks is rooted in religious and cultural traditions that date back to Ancient Rome. Long, long story short: annual feasting that celebrated the arrival of spring was eventually incorporated into Christian traditions, and in 1582 the Catholic Church officially sanctioned Mardi Gras as the celebration before Ash Wednesday, as well as the fasting and reflection of Lent.
Residents of Pensacola were documented celebrating Mardi Gras as early as 1838, when Florida was a U.S. territory. Episcopal Bishop Jackson Kemper termed what he viewed that Tuesday, “an old Spanish custom,” with, “people in masques and grotesque dresses…throwing flour at all they met. All the clergy in town were honored in this way.”
Like fellow Gulf Coast cities New Orleans and Mobile, Pensacola was one of the former French and Spanish colonial settlements that later developed into an urban port city. Descendants of French and Spanish settlers perpetuated the Mardi Gras tradition, and what most now recognize as Mardi Gras (parades, krewes, throws, etc.) developed in those cities.
Pensacola’s first attempt at a formally organized celebration occurred in 1874 when the Knights of Priscus Association formed. By the early 1890s, some organizations held carnival balls enjoyed by masked revelers Mardi Gras day, but there was no organized community-wide event.
Huge strides were made for Mardi Gras in 1900, which was the beginning of a 30-year run of highly successful and widely attended celebrations in Pensacola. The then two-day event centered on the King of Priscus, who presided over the festivities. Priscus arrived on the “Royal Yacht” at Palafox Wharf on the Monday before Mardi Gras, and paraded down Palafox Street to meet the Queen. Mardi Gras night saw the last and largest of the parades.
The king’s identity was kept secret until the Coronation, which was held for many years at the Pensacola Opera House on Monday evening. The king was required to pay for a certain number of parties and contribute money to the Carnival Committee, and was typically among Pensacola’s wealthier and prominent families. Over the years, smaller societies developed and held their own parades, electing kings and queens for their individual groups as well.
The Pensacola Carnival Association formed in 1902 and remained active until 1930, when, realizing there would be no way to fund the city’s celebration as a result of the Great Depression, the group dissolved. Prior to the Depression, only World War I caused a three-year suspension of Mardi Gras, which drew a reported 30,000 attendees in 1927.
For over forty years, social clubs and societies held balls during the Carnival season, but there were no parades or other public Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola until the late 1970s. In 1977, the Chamber of Commerce resurrected Mardi Gras, which consisted of one parade and other festivities at Seville Quarter that year. Brought back as a way to aid local businesses and draw visitors to downtown, the annual festivities have grown to include at least three parades, including the Grand Mardi Gras Parade held each year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, and the beach parade on Sunday.
Rather than having one or two presiding kings or prominent parading krewes as there are in other cities, now multiple krewes participate in the Grand Parade. Pensacola’s public festivities have evolved into one of the more family-friendly and accessible Mardi Gras parties on the Gulf Coast. The now 35-year run of continuous Mardi Gras events in Pensacola has surpassed the first 30-year stretch in longevity, and hopefully won’t slow down anytime soon.
Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her at Music Box Pensacola.