THE HISTORY OF
The season of Mardi Gras begins on the Christian holiday of Epiphany and is rooted in ancient spring fertility festivals. It most likely began with a 3,500-year-old Greek spring fertility celebration. Once it got into Roman hands, it was renamed Lupercalia in honor of Lupercus, their pastoral god. During this circus-like orgy held in mid-February in Rome, people were given license to do anything they wanted under the guise of face masks.
Under Christianity, Lupercalia was incorporated into church celebrations, but it took five centuries for the Roman Catholic Church to tame it into a celebration just for fun. The Church was in the habit of eclipsing and eventually absorbing pagan festivals.
When the Catholic Church wanted to eclipse the festivities of a rival pagan religion that threatened Christianity’s existence, Christmas was born. On December 25th, the Romans celebrated the birthday of their sun god. Although it was not popular, or even proper, to celebrate people’s birthdays in those times, church leaders decided that in order to compete with the pagan celebration, they would themselves order a festival in celebration of the birth of Christ. So they chose the same day and eventually absorbed the pagan festival.
The same thing happened with Easter. Easter is from the Scandinavian “Ostra” and Teutonic “Ostern” or “Eastre,” both names for the Goddess of mythology signifying spring and fertility whose festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox. Christians absorbed this festival as Easter.
It also happened for Halloween and All Saints Day which is the Christianization of the Celtic New Year called Samhain, celebrated November 1st.
So what else is new? Why should this celebration cause any more alarm than the others. To make the carnival (spring rites) acceptable, church leaders revived the original Greek motive of atonement with acceptable feasting before the Lenten season. It spread rapidly throughout Europe. Christianized Roman and Greek leaders had medals struck and dispensed them along the roadside while masked revelers paraded and pelted one another with confetti and candy. By the time of the Middle Ages, Florence and Venice had parades with boats.
One thousand years after the papal change of the holiday from pagan to Christian, carnival arrived in New Orleans through the French. Pierre LeMoyne D’Iberville explored the Gulf Coast and remarked in his 1699 journal, “March 3rd Mardy Gras Day.” D’Iberville, who was exploring the mouth of the Mississippi River, proclaimed a bayou that he discovered on that day as “Point du Mardi Gras.” On that day, tradition dictates, the explorers opened a bottle of wine and toasted their king, King Louis XIV. By the late 1700s pre-Lenten masked balls and parties flourished in New Orleans and the first “parade” began in 1837.
Carnival season usually falls earlier than this year and begins around Epiphany and ends on Mardi Gras day. Calculating the date of Mardi Gras can be tricky. First, you must calculate the day of Easter. The date of Easter is determined by the moon. The first Sunday following the full moon that occurs or follows the spring equinox (March 21) is Easter. So it falls on different days between March 22 and April 25, depending when the first full moon occurs after March 21st. Then you count back 47 days (40 days of Lent plus 7 Sundays). So Mardi Gras can fall any time between February 3 to March 9. While the Church and the Church’s calendar is responsible for Carnival and Mardi Gras, it has become more of a secular holiday than a spiritual one. The same could be said, however, for Christmas and Easter.
There is no celebration in the world which is as much misconstrued as Mardi Gras. Most people believe that the celebration spreads over a few days before Ash Wednesday. In reality, carnival is similar to the Fasching of Germany which begins on the twelfth night (Epiphany) and continues until Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras - French for Fat Tuesday).
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word "Carnival", is derived from the "taking away of flesh" (camera levare) which marked the beginning of Lent. In other word, the word came from the idea that meat would be taken away beginning on Ash Wednesday.
The season begins at Epiphany. “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “showing forth” or “manifestation.” The feast is about the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah and Savior of the world. In many Catholic countries, Epiphany is called “Little Christmas.” It is on that day children receive their presents and they do not come from Santa Claus, but from the Three Kings. It marks the day the Magi brought gifts to the Christ Child.
One of the most popular customs was to bake a special cake in honor of the three Kings – “a King Cake.” The cake contains a baby which represents the child Jesus. Tradition evolved through time to obligate the person who receives the baby inside to continue the festivities by hosting another party. It is only a recent phenomenon that Catholics go to communion every Sunday. In the not too distant past, many people rarely went to communion. They did, however, perform their “Easter duties.” So, with the King Cake, week after week, they were nourished on the gift of the Divine Child by the person who found him in their cake.
The colors represent the gifts of the Magi: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh – Gold, Green and Purple – Power, Faith and Justice, respectively. The Magi represent us on our life journey. Balthasar carried the gift of gold. He was the young man at the bloom of his youth filled with enthusiasm for life. The second, Gaspar, the dark man, bears the gift of frankincense. It is us in mid-life who are led to deal with our “accommodated self” – the persona behind which our authentic self has been hiding. It is here we are called to acknowledge our dark side and embrace the presence of God. Then there is Melchoir, the elderly man carrying myrrh, the spice used in burial. He is pictured most closely to the child – often shown on all fours before the infant. He has doffed his crown, he has cast aside human pride and reputation and has become like a child. He has passed through mid-life and embraced the “dark other.” He speaks wisdom.
There is a sort of “communion” in the King Cake which is filled with symbolism. There was also a practical aspect of Fat Tuesday. Remember, there were not always refrigerators and freezers. Lent was coming and there was no way to store meat and butter for six weeks. And wasting it would be unthinkable. So, the day before Lent, people feasted on the meat and butter which would not be part of their Lenten fast.
In England, Mardi Gras is known as Pancake Day when people covered their pancakes with butter. In Germany and France people ate doughnuts fried in deep fat. In Mardi Gras parades there are the gaily dressed butchers on a float with a huge ox. Tuesday became the day to use up all the fat (butter and meat) before the rigid abstinence of Ash Wednesday. Thus, Fat Tuesday.
Let’s face it, people love celebrations. Even Jesus loved a good meal with friends or the fun of a wedding. In ancient Israel, a wedding ceremony began when the groom arrived, the doors were shut and the party lasted until the wine ran out. Jesus found himself at one in which the wine ran out early. So he changed water into wine – thus, extending the life of the party.
On Ash Wednesday morning, the debris of Mardi Gras in the streets lie in sharp contrast to the people walking around with a smear of ashes on their foreheads. (The ashes are made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday). But Mardi Gras has provided a lesson to everyone. When you go to those parades and catch a trinket, you are delighted to have caught something. Then you want one of those longer necklaces or a pearl one. Then you want the stuffed animal, the coconut or some other coveted item. And frantically, people scramble for the “treasures” flying from the float. They seem so important at the moment. And people walk away so satisfied. But the next morning, we look at that junk and realize it is just junk. It’s not important and we don’t even know what to do with it. We throw it in a closet and head to church for our ashes. The city seems so silent.
On our walk to church, if we are even slightly astute, we will realize that only two things in life are important. Those two things are our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. And we realize that even though it was a great game of “let’s pretend” at the parades, all that stuff doesn’t matter. When we get to church, we are reminded that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. We realize that money, power, position, possessions all dim in comparison to our relationship with God and with other people.
We realize that LOVE is the only thing that matters. Love, God and people are the only things that are eternal. We forget the junk, and remember the fun we had with our love ones – with families and friends. We forget the junk and concentrate on Lent and our relationship with God and his Son who loved us to his death. What a marvelous lesson Carnival and Mardi Gras teaches us. It teaches us what truly matters in life – God and other people. Everything else, including all the trinkets of life, are not important.
There are fundamentalist Christians who are offended by Mardi Gras and want it eliminated. Personally, I think if you want to be offended by something, I could give you a long list starting with world hunger. But if Mardi Gras offends you, my suggestion is simply: DON’T GO. That way, you will be happier and I will be able to find a parking space and a place to stand!
PURPLE = JUSTICE
GREEN = FAITH
GOLD = POWER