Mardi Gras 2009 courtesy of Infrogmation (talk)
Ginny here. I love Mardi Gras! The masks, the parades, the beads, the glitter! I have a serious weakness for the sparkly stuff! It more often falls in February, so I think of Mardi Gras as a winter festival. Fat Tuesday moves with the date of Easter each year, which moves with the full moon dates after the spring equinox but the festival season varies from city to city, so some traditions celebrate Carnival for the entire period between Twelfth Night (also called Epiphany or Three Kings Day) and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Mardi Gras is the last day to celebrate, eat and drink before the fasting of Lent begins.
Epiphany is also traditionally when celebrants serve King’s Cake, a custom that began in France in the 12th century. In the early days, a coin or bean was hidden inside the cake, and whoever found the item was said to have good luck in the coming year. In Louisiana, bakers now put a small baby, representing the Christ Child, in the cake; the recipient is then expected to host the next King Cake party.
So for some, Mardi Gras is the interlude, the between time when rules don’t apply, that links the Christmas season with the Easter season. It seems likely that an even older fasting tradition might come from a time when the winter stores were running low and there was still a month or more before new growth to gather, new game to hunt, began to appear. That early fast may not have been by choice.
Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh” and lots of historians see it as yet another late-winter celebration designed to welcome the coming spring. Others believe the festival represented the few days added to the lunar calendar to make it coincide with the solar calendar; since these days were “extra”, rules and customs were not obeyed. Could be! We’ve been making up ways to manipulate the calendar variations that have come down to us through history so they would all “talk to each other” as we move around the globe. Leap Day, that infamous 29th of February that only comes around every four years, is another attempt to make it all come out even.
It’s also another manifestation of time out of time, the in-between times and places that people have always found magical: marshes and beaches that are neither land nor water, dawn and dusk that are neither night nor day. These times and places have a potential to feel the imagination and Mardi Gras does that in spades! (There’s a whole card game, greater trumps kind of conversation that…..never mind, another time. Another time out of time, maybe.)
“She was stacked!” courtesy of KellyPortfolio
What’s for sure is that the name Mardi Gras comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival. This is also Shrove Tuesday (from “to shrive,” or hear confessions) and Pancake Tuesday and fetter Dienstag. The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting and abstinence of Lent begins –and before they spoil in the warmer weather to come.
The rich, French traditions of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras include lavish feasts and balls, King Cake, parades, beads, masks and costumes, all steeped in the steamy, smoky, music-filled ambiance of the southern coast.
Other cities famous for Mardi Gras celebrations include Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Barranquilla, Colombia; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Quebec City, Canada; and Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico—and there are parades and celebrations in some places you wouldn’t expect, like Binche, Belgium and Dakar, Senegal!
So—my traditions? My winter altar this year is, shall we say, robust! How could it not be after the fabulous Deep Winter workshop last month? New friends and old. Mardi Gras flavor, alongside the Year of the Horse, Brigid’s cross, Valentines and the silver cold reminder we had last weekend that it’s still winter—a little late this year, and sparkly like Mardi Gras. I love remembering the road trips to New Orleans from Houston—6 hours door to door, our house to Maison Dupuy in the Quarter. You enter another world as soon as you cross out of Texas into the Louisiana parishes. I wonder if there’s still a bird in the lobby who says, “Here, kitty, kitty!”. And the food…don’t get me started!
Photo courtesy of Mandy Anderson
Rex, one of the oldest New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes, has been participating in parades since 1872, and established purple, gold and green as the iconic Mardi Gras colors. I’ll be wearing them. Will you?