“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens… A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)
The Church orders these times, or seasons, for us through the ebb and flow of the liturgical year. The Church year contains periods of ordinary time interspersed with the penitential seasons of Advent and Lenten fasting and festive celebratory feasts, most notably Christmas and Easter.
As Lent approaches, many Catholics celebrate the Carnival season beginning with Epiphany, which occurs on January 6, also known as “Twelfth Night,” as it is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Carnival season, with its festive-colored beads, parades, and rich foods, continues for several weeks until Mardi Gras Day, or “Fat Tuesday,” which is the eve of Ash Wednesday. During carnival, which, translated, means “farewell to meat,” early Catholic Christians used up all of the rich foods in the home, such as meat, eggs, milk, and fat, to prepare for the Lenten fast, which was considerably more austere at the time. Although Mardi Gras has, in places, become more wordly and secular, the intent of the feasting and celebration of the season is to rejoice and, in a sense, “live it up” for time to prepare mentally, physically, and spiritually for the rigor of Lenten fasting and abstinence. From the festive parades to the elaborate balls and rich foods, Mardi Gras is about celebration. However, the feasting has traditionally ended at midnight, as the costumes are put away and the revelers awake on Ash Wednesday to enter into the more somber and pious period of the Lenten season.
Mardi Gras has its origins in 17th and 18th Century Europe and made its way across the Atlantic with French settlers. Although New Orleans is notorious for its Mardi Gras festivities, many claim the celebration of the feast was actually held first in Mobile, Alabama. In 1702, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville established the settlement of Mobile, or “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” as it was originally named, and Mardi Gras was celebrated in the new colony the very next year. However, some say the very first American Mardi Gras took place a few years earlier on March 3, 1699, when Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville reached a spot near New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day and named it “La Pointe du Mardy Gras.” It is said that New Orleans followed suit after its founding, also by Bienville, in 1718. Mardi Gras has since evolved into the energetic and elaborate festivities which occur today in New Orleans, Mobile, and the surrounding areas, and it has since migrated to other parts of the country as well.
The rich symbolism of Mardi Gras can help us to remain focused on Christ as we enjoy this period of feasting and merrymaking. The season is surrounded by visible signs of Christianity, which serve to strengthen our devotion during this time. At Epiphany, many indulge in King Cake, which commemorates the coming of the three Wise Men to the newborn Infant Jesus after his birth. The Mardi Gras colors themselves – purple, green, and gold – represent the characteristics of justice, faith, and power, respectively. In the center of the King Cake can often be found a plastic baby, signifying the Christ Child. With it, we are reminded to continue to rejoice at the birth of our Savior, as we transition to the more ascetical practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving that we will begin to undertake during the upcoming forty days of Lent.
Many people have a renewed interest in reviving the original Catholic purpose and practice of the celebration of the Mardi Gras, or Carnival, season. It should be a time that families and communities gather to experience friendship and fellowship in a joyful and wholesome manner, in anticipation of the more prayerful and penitential time of Lent. It is necessary to have times of rejoicing and celebrating to balance the hardships and trials that we all face in life. St. John Paul II remarked that, “God made us for joy. God is joy, and the joy of living reflects the original joy that God felt in creating us.” We should recapture the rhythm of the liturgical year by fully engaging in and enjoying our festive seasons, as well as participate in the sacrifice of the penitential ones.
Mardi Gras is an excellent time to come together as a family or community and enjoy the gift of life that we have been given. If your geographical area happens not to host parades or festivities for this season, you can create your own by baking your own King Cake or pancakes, which is another traditional Mardi Gras indulgence. Families with children can create their own Mardi Gras masks, decorated with traditional colors of purple, green, and gold, or can dress up in costumes to commemorate the day. The idea is to revel in the day, preparing for the change in seasons which occurs at midnight before Ash Wednesday.
In an article from Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family, Maria Von Trapp comments that “It should be our noble right and duty to bring up our children in such a way that they become conscious of high tide and low tide, that they learn that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4). The rhythm of nature as it manifests itself in the four seasons, in day and night, in the individual’s heartbeat and breathing—this rhythm we should learn to recognize and to treat with more reverence.”
Maria Von Trapp is encouraging us, as Catholics, to recognize and respect the times and seasons of the Church year, and to observe the feasts and seasons within the family, so that we can live out our Faith and enter into the rhythm of the liturgical year. In this way, we are participating in and becoming the kingdom of God on earth. Mardi Gras should never be reduced to just a time to “party.” If we only celebrate Mardi Gras without Ash Wednesday and Lent, the celebration becomes meaningless and loses its value and the satisfaction that is meant to be experienced from it. We may have “fun,” but will we truly experience the deep joy that comes when we comprehend the essence and significance of the feast that we are celebrating?