February 12, 2021

Reflection / John F. Fink

Mardi Gras is a Catholic thing

John F. FinkMardi Gras is a Catholic celebration.

We here in Indiana don’t celebrate Fat Tuesday like they do in other parts of the country, especially in the South. Sometimes, we only see parades on TV, usually in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. The emphasis is almost always on revelry. But the observance is Catholic.

Often, people who don’t live in the South are unaware that Mardi Gras has become more than only a single day. It’s the entire period of time between the feast of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, which Catholics tend to observe more than others do. Parades and balls in towns in the South begin the week after Epiphany and, if you live in the South during any normal year, you can watch the parades and try to catch strings of beads and other items several times a week.

This year, though, there are no parades because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mardi Gras was brought to the United States by the French, and the words themselves mean “Fat Tuesday.” The idea was that the day before Ash Wednesday is the final day to eat meats and fatty foods before the penitential season of Lent, back when Lenten regulations regarding fasting from meat were much stricter than they are today.

Other Catholic countries also celebrated this period with festivals. In Germany, it was (and is) called Fasching, in Italy Martedi Grasso, and in Brazil Carnival.

Mobile, Ala., legitimately claims that Mardi Gras in the United States began there. The first organized celebration there was in 1703. New Orleans didn’t start its celebrations until 1837, and Galveston, Texas, in 1867. Carnival began in Brazil (the country with the largest Catholic population) in 1723.

My first introduction to Mardi Gras was while I was in the Air Force in 1954 and stationed in Biloxi, Miss.

The secretary in our office was one of the princesses in the krewe (one of the groups that sponsored a parade and a ball) and she asked me to escort her.

But it was after my retirement as editor of The Criterion and spending 13 winters in Orange Beach, Ala., that my wife and I began to attend Mardi Gras parades on a regular basis: in Mobile and New Orleans, of course, but also Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Fairhope and Pensacola, Fla. We ended up with bags full of beads tossed by people on floats to those watching the parade. We would drive to the cities with friends, park in parking lots, tailgate for dinner, and then watch the parades and catch beads. It was always great fun.

About those beads: The official colors for Mardi Gras beads are purple, which stands for justice; green, which stands for faith; and gold, which stands for power.

Another tradition is the king cake: a pastry with the Mardi Gras colors as frosting, with a small plastic baby Jesus baked inside. Whoever gets the plastic baby has to host the next party, or buy the next cake, or whatever else the friends decide.

Floats in the parades can be elaborate in the big cities, or simple in smaller towns, but they are big enough for numerous members of the krewes who build them. Riders on the floats, and participants in the balls that follow the parades, are masked because the theory is that they can do good deeds (or bad deeds) incognito.

New Orleans, Mobile, Biloxi and probably other cities have Mardi Gras museums that display some of the fancy costumes that women have worn to the balls. The one in New Orleans is only yards away from St. Louis Cathedral, which seems appropriate.

Mardi Gras ends abruptly at midnight, as Ash Wednesday and Lent begin. Then it’s time for confession and penance—also very Catholic.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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