catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 4 :: 2009.02.13 — 2009.02.27


Reclaiming Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, a traditional Catholic celebration of the last day of feasting before the fasting of Lent, is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted outside of Louisiana, having been perverted by late-night TV commercials depicting it as a hedonistic free-for-all. Indeed, any mention of Mardi Gras – which is French for “Fat Tuesday” – outside of southern Louisiana is typically met with embarrassed giggles at best and inflammatory condemnation at worst. As New Orleans struggled to recover following Hurricane Katrina, some questioned the wisdom of staging Mardi Gras a mere six months after the disaster. Why spend money throwing a party, the rest of the country reasoned, when you don’t have a home? More tragically, many walked the line further to ask why the United States should bother rebuilding the modern-day Sodom and Gomorra.

To say that New Orleans, as well as the rest of Louisiana, are different from mainstream U.S. culture would be a gross understatement. Louisiana has a legal system unlike any other in the United States (the Napoleonic Code), a system of geographical division unlike any other (parishes, rather than counties), and, perhaps most importantly, a different Christian tradition undergirding all of this in Catholicism. Lafayette boasts an overwhelming majority of Catholic citizens, with Catholics outnumbering Protestants nearly five-to-one. The effects of historical Catholicism on Louisiana’s culture cannot be underestimated. However subtly, the city moves with the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. In addition to the Christmastime festivities that are stock-and-trade across the country, citizens of south Louisiana often adhere to traditional Lenten fasts. Lafayette restaurants often adopt and advertise Lenten menus to accommodate the many who fast from meat in the season of mourning that precedes the celebration of Easter.

But the most popular, and misunderstood, of liturgical seasons is Mardi Gras. While not technically celebrated or institutionalized by the Roman Catholic church, Mardi Gras has been a time of great feasting before the fasting of Lent in a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years to medieval Europe. Mardi Gras Day, which falls on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, was viewed as a final day of indulgence, one last chance to celebrate before repenting. As the tradition aged and made its way to the more licentious French colonies in Louisiana and Brazil, the celebrations became more fractured, localized, and unique. Mardi Gras, like most holidays, looks completely different in different places. Unlike most places, though, Mardi Gras can look like two completely different things in towns only eighty miles apart, or even within the same town.

New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is perhaps the most detached from traditional European Mardi Gras. While it is typically associated with bare breasts and too-drunk college students, the reality is that these things make up a minor fraction of the festivities. In fact, these activities typically take place in the most tourist-friendly section of New Orleans, the Upper French Quarter, which, on Mardi Gras Day, is home base to far more out-of-towners than New Orleanians. Most locals stay nearer the Uptown parade routes, where any nudity leads to quick arrest. The parades, which feature lavishly decorated floats and flamboyant marching bands, feel more like a football tailgate party than a spring break night club. The parade route is typically bordered by ladders with strap-in seats attached to the top, nearly all of which are occupied by children who beg the float riders for plastic beads, cups emblazoned with Mardi Gras logos, and various other toys while parents barbecue and drink on the wide, grassy median of St. Charles Avenue. On the other side of the French Quarter, New Orleans’ bohemian and artist community celebrates by dressing in outrageous and often satirical costumes and staging their own parades that run from bar-to-bar in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras brings together the city’s myriad cultures, from the Italians and Irish of the Lower Garden District to the African-American Catholics of the Tremé neighborhood, whose St. Augustine High School’s Marching 100 band marches in several parades each year and is widely considered to be the crown jewel of New Orleans.

Parades within the city limits of Lafayette are much like their New Orleans counterparts, though with smaller and less rambunctious crowds. In the small towns that dot the prairies surrounding Lafayette, though, is the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras (Running of Mardi Gras). Inhabitants of towns like Eunice and Mamou will dress in brightly colored rags and parade around town, stopping at homes to beg for ingredients to a gumbo. Led by a capitaine who seeks permission to enter the homeowners’ property, as well as a Cajun band that leads the crowd like a French Pied Piper, the revelers sing and chant their requests. Most homeowners will release a chicken into their yards, and the group chases and catches it before heading to the next home. After gathering the ingredients, the entire group proceeds to a public hall for the cooking of the gumbo and a Cajun dance. The entire ceremony closely resembles the traditional Medieval Mardi Gras celebrations, where poorer citizens would dress in costumes mocking their ruling class and parade about town entertaining their neighbors and begging for food and money.

It would be fair to critique a Christian interpretation of Mardi Gras as naïve. After all, the majority of the season’s participants would not consider themselves practicing Catholics or Christians and many have used it in ways that distort or even mock the gospel. Indeed, Mardi Gras, when considered from outside of its cultural context, must look about as foreign to Christianity as American Christmas celebrations must look to Eastern Christians.

So what do we, as Christians, do with Mardi Gras? Do we give up on the entire project, saying that it’s gotten out of hand, or is too complicated, too bizarre, too “other” to be a part of our Christian experience? Or do we attempt to redeem it, adopting to ourselves its embrace of the push-pull of the liturgical calendar? Many  Christians have quite a bit to learn about celebration; one would wonder, judging by our attempts at celebration, whether we have anything to celebrate to begin with, whether our God is worth celebrating.

In early spring of 1908, the Reverend Charles L. Collins of the Kentucky Anti-Saloon League travelled south to New Orleans. The Kentucky Anti-Saloon League was but one of many branches of the group whose actions would eventually lead to the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, and the Reverend’s trip was likely a fact-finding trip, a testing of how well the League’s work was being received in the former French colony. An unabashed Protestant reformer alone in a city that had been Catholic for two hundred years, it is safe to say that the Reverend would not have been prepared for culture shock at any time of year. But he didn’t sojourn to New Orleans at just any time of year. The Reverend Charles L. Collins of the Kentucky Anti-Saloon League went to Mardi Gras.

After a time, the Reverend Collins left New Orleans, deeming the city impervious to moral reform. Of course, New Orleans’ resilience was ultimately futile, and the Anti-Saloon League would get the Eighteenth Amendment passed several years later. After having left the Carnival, with its fluttering colors, its romantic drunks, its shimmering floats, its high order, its royal filigree, the Reverend Collins, a moral policeman of the highest order, remarked, “As to the Mardi Gras festivities proper, I am both delighted and shocked beyond belief.” That an early twentieth-century pietist could smile despite himself among the rain of beads and doubloons should teach us all to wipe the giggles off our mouths and replace them with true laughs of abundant joy. Our God, and the freedom and beauty that He has given to us, is worthy of our celebration.

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