Mardi Gras

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to Medieval Europe.  Our American rituals are rooted mainly with practices dating back to 17th Century France when King Louis XIV commissioned explorers to establish colonies in the New World.  French-Canadians, Jean Baptiste Bienville and Pierre d’Iberville, went south around modern-day Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and eastern Texas, where, at a spot sixty miles south of what is now New Orleans, they arrived on the eve of Ash Wednesday in 1699 and named the spot “Pointe du Mardi Gras.”

Bringing traditions from their native heritage, it didn’t take long for Mardi Gras to become an annual celebration there.  But in its first hundred years or so, it was a somewhat mystical and even secretive observance guided by the Boeuf Gras Society, an esoteric group that paraded a bull’s head through streets, used gas torches to provide light displays, and dazzled onlookers with magic.  In 1718, New Orleans was established by Bienville and soon thereafter extravagant parties were hosted by city and parish officials.  By the 1730s or 40s, anonymous mischievous masked men took to the streets to set a tone for the day; people wore masks, in part, because it was also Shrove Tuesday, a time to confess sins and seek absolution before the forty days of prayer and preparation.  In hiding their sinful nature on Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, they could reveal their true nature as God-seekers during Lent.  “Boeuf Gras” means fatted calf, which was tied to the Gospel story of The Prodigal Son who squandered his inheritance with parties and hedonistic pleasures.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Society expanded their street celebrations with floats in a carnival atmosphere.  “Carne” is Latin for meat.  Carnival themes, therefore, seem appropriate for the hours before a forty-day sacred fast; so, they stuffed themselves with rich, fatty foods, centered around meats.  Some called it Pancake Day because it was the time to consume ingredients like sugar, flour, lard, syrup, butter, and other items that threatened fasting.  Elegant balls were attended by the wealthy and powerful citizens who created fancy and unusual costumes.  In the 1870s, when Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was debated, animal costumes became popular as a means of mocking the theory.

In 1875, Mardi Gras was declared a legal state holiday by Louisiana’s governor as masquerade balls spread and parades expanded.  It was in that decade that the Russian grand duke of the Romanoff Family was the honored guest for the city’s massive festival.  His family colors, purple, green, and gold, were adopted as official flavors for the celebration.  Though the shades had particular significance for his family (purple-justice, green-faith, and gold-power), they had another meaning for Christians moving from Ordinary Time to Lent in the direction of Easter (purple-penance, green-hope, and gold-exultation). Decorative beads of those shades, worn as necklaces or bracelets and tossed into crowds, are symbolic of prayer beads from various religious traditions: the rosary for Catholics, tasbih for Muslims, mala for Hindus and Buddhists; they beckon the Catholic population of the region, in particular, to a season prayer.

Like many of our annual commemorations, we vacillate between the sacred and secular.  This one, perhaps more than others, points to extremes.  Whatever is your sense of Mardi Gras, and even if the party overtone diminishes its sacred roots, it remains a time to rejoice in life and move toward what is truly important.  As it ushers us into Lent, let’s hold on to some of the religious undertones and let them help focus us along our journey to God and His divine mercy.

There are numerous Mardi Gras celebrations in KC each year.  Saint Therese Little Flower Church hosts one this weekend as its major annual fundraiser.  Though sold out, you may donate to the food pantry and social service ministries online at the parish web site.  If you only want the gumbo, some may be sold this Sunday after 9:00 Mass.  For more information, contact the office at 816-444-5406.