Mardi Gras Was Different Before Converting to Catholicism

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans        Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is THE tourist and local extravaganza in New Orleans.  The noblesse oblige historic parade krewes with the old white kings and young debutante queens throwing beads to the masses is a hard swallow even as the parades have become more ubiquitous and even somewhat more democratic in recent years.  Newcomers to the city have created their own street parades and events some of which are very political.  An all-women krewe is now the largest in the city.

Frequently, asked if after decades of living in the city whether I go to parades, I say, yes and no, because I don’t go to them, they come to me.  Our neighborhood, only a few miles from Canal Street where the historic floats hit their apex and the crowds throb from the street into the Vieux Carre, is the site of many celebrations, including some that go in front of our house or are only a few blocks away.  In other cases, I can see all the floats when traffic is stopped by the police on Rampart or St. Claude where our offices are located on their way to their dens or warehouses in neighboring St. Bernard.

New Orleans isn’t the Catholic city it once was, but the history runs deep.  Mardi Gras is the last day before the forty-day period of Lent.  Traditionally, it would be fish-Fridays and giving up something during that period before Easter.  This legacy is historically an appropriation of more pagan and primitive celebrations and practices before the success marked by religious conversion with state sanction.

Carnival comes from the Latin carne valem or “goodbye to meat.”  In a less refrigerated world of past centuries, a celebration of sorts had been fabricated on that date to cook what was left of the meat before it spoiled and the food stores exhausted over the winter, while hoping that enough animals and food survived to make it until warmer weather.  The forty day or more period was a time of deprivation and forced fasting until the coming of spring, rechristened to Lent and Easter.  Lent is derived from the Olde English words that meant “spring” or “lengthening days.”  The celebrations, plays, and parades were as much about getting rid of evil spirits in pagan times or mythical bandits or others scourges of the community, still honored in the Basque region of France for example.

In New Orleans, the date is generally a good marker for spring in a way that is less common in other parts of the country.  Flowers are budding.  I’ll mow the grass today.  The camelias have already bloomed.  The temperature will push towards 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Lucha, our Australian shepherd, will bark across the fence at hundreds of costumers both native to our area and overflowing in Airbnbs that have popped up in block after block in recent years.

It’s a day that I can’t get to the office, so that makes it a holiday even if you can’t tell by the email streaming in on our server, alerting me that this is normal day elsewhere, but not for we children of our super seasonal pagan ancestors.