Mardi Gras: Re-Claiming and Re-Ritualizing a Most Catholic Festival

By Sallwasser, Carrie | Momentum, February/March 2011 | Go to article overview

Mardi Gras: Re-Claiming and Re-Ritualizing a Most Catholic Festival


Sallwasser, Carrie, Momentum


Reclaiming our Catholic roots and re-imaging the rituals of Mardi Gras could assist our schools and parish schools of religion to be places of joyful gratitude, service and evangelization

Our family's birthday ritual revolved around the toothpick. My mother always baked a two-layer cake and used a toothpick to hold the layers together as she frosted the cake. The person who ended up with the toothpick in his or her piece of cake had to do the dishes. Of course we did our best to cut around it or, if we were the unfortunate recipient, slyly slip the offending splinter of wood onto a sibling's plate. All of our efforts really didn't matter because my mom always ended up doing the dishes. But that was our ritual, our way of celebrating the event of our birth. Interestingly enough, this ritual was only for birthdays. Cakes throughout the rest of the year never carried the toothpick curse.

Rituals are activities, items, colors, music, smells and foods that engage the participants into the meaning of the event being celebrated. Try to think of Christmas without the tree or Easter without the egg-obsessed bunny. Both tree and rabbit have their roots in pagan rituals that the Catholic Church adopted and transformed into rituals to mark Christian beliefs. The rituals of Passover, of washing hands, lifting and blessing bread and wine, were incorporated in the rituals of Eucharist.

Rituals can take on lives of their own. The evergreen tree, originally a simple symbol of re-birth placed in homes during the winter solstice, has become the fashion centerpiece of the home. Easter's rabbit and egg symbols of new life have morphed into chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. As Catholic educators it is our responsibility to recall and re-tell and re-evangelize rituals that have gone astray.

As we prepare to enter into the Lenten season, it is worthwhile to review and revive the roots of Mardi Gras, to see how the church adapted pagan rituals and transformed them. This powerful Catholic pre-Lenten celebration of the goodness of life has devolved into a celebration of overindulgence for the sake of overindulgence- without any religious symbolism behind it. In this sense, Mardi Gras is once again a pagan festival in need of Christian evangelization and transformation.

Roots in the Second Century

Mardi Gras1 roots go all the way back to the second century when the Romans celebrated the festival of Lupercalia on Feb. 15. Some say this originated in the move from the lunar to solar calendar, where several days were "lost." These missing days were celebrated as days without rules. As the church spread its message of Christ, rather than alienate the pagans they were hoping to convert, it incorporated this festival of merriment at the beginning of the 40 sober days of Lent.

By the Middle Ages this festival in Europe was known as carnis levamen (solace of the flesh). It was customary to prepare for a period of fasting by a period of overindulgence and celebration. In France, in particular, this custom of celebration followed by fasting became prevalent. This season began on Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany. This time of Carnival (carne va/e- farewell to the flesh) culminated on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. During Lent, rich foods were forbidden and so Tuesday became known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, an opportunity to use up rich foods and drinks before the great fast of Lent. Because Lent is the longest and most serious of all the fasts, it followed that the celebration prior would be extravagant.

Mardi Gras came to the Americas with the French explorer Sieur Iberville who came to explore the Mississippi. When he came to the New World he set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi River, 60 miles south of the future location of New Orleans. His camp was set up on March 3, 1699. This was the day of Mardi Gras in his native Paris so he named the camp Point du Mardi Gras.

The modern celebration of Mardi Gras in North America often is credited to a group of students who had returned to New Orleans from Paris and who paraded in the streets in masks and strange costumes. …

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