As I write, it’s Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras — whatever you choose to call it. But by whatever name it is referred, it is that annual day of indulgence for some before beginning the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, and it is the culmination of the Carnival season.
Now, I am not Catholic but a Protestant. Even so, I am familiar with the practices outside my own denomination as my mother’s family is Catholic and I have a lot of Catholic friends, but I have never observed Lent. It is something that I wasn’t brought up observing. But I have to say that through the years, this sacrificing for the reasons my family and friends do has made me think on it and see it as a good opportunity for spiritual reflection, focus, and growth.
And that is a big part of the purpose of Lent, to reflect and focus on Jesus Christ in preparation for Easter. It is a time of penance and prayer.
And just before Lent, and in preparation for it, comes the tradition of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday in English. Traditionally, it is the eating of fattier foods, richer foods as one prepares for fasting.
I lived down south for a few years, making my way to New Orleans several times because it was only a couple of hours drive west on Interstate 10.
It is a great city, it really is. And in the French Quarter it is like time itself has stopped to take a break and stroll along the streets, a fruity Hurricane cocktail in hand.
I have not been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but plenty of my Florida friends have, and I have heard the stories and know it is something else altogether this time of year.
One might think of the big party of Mardi Gras, and all the stuff that comes with a party, like intoxicated folks with any and all inhibitions thrown to the winds. I think that is solely found in the French Quarter, where no full-size parades can venture.
But the city and the celebration are so much more than the debauchery depicted. In fact, I have found a number of sites with comments from NOLA natives saying that the Carnival events around the city are something that are family friendly, with the festivities in the French Quarter the ones that give the whole celebration an off-color tint, at least to those of us that aren’t native to New Orleans.
The Carnival season begins each year after the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, and culminates with Mardi Gras on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This year, the Carnival season began on Jan. 6 and ends Feb. 9.
It is celebrated all over the world, and the celebration in New Orleans is one of the more popular, attended by millions each year. New Orleans is not the only place Mardi Gras is celebrated in the United States, but it perhaps the best known, and marked by its own traditions of king cake; bright purple, green, and gold; masked revelers; beads; and more.
Interestingly, the Krewe of Rex chose the official colors in 1872 — purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.
According to the History Channel, it is believed that the first Mardi Gras celebration was held in the United States by French explorers in 1699 in what is now known as New Orleans.
It wasn’t until 1827 that students took to the streets dancing in colorful costumes during the celebration. A decade later the first known Mardi Gras parade happened in the streets of New Orleans. Two decades after that, a krewe (any group that puts on a ball or a parade for the Carnival season) organized a torch-lit procession with marching band and moving floats.
Today, according to a parade schedule easily found online, there are about 70 krewes, and parades with elaborate floats and intricately-costumed krewe members that began more than a month ago, all culminating with Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras — whatever one wants to call it.
New Orleans online estimates that each year the Carnival season consists of more than 800 floats; more than 400 marching, jazz, and brass bands; over 300 flambeaux (flaming torches); and more than 20,000 float riders. The site also includes other notable tidbits such as the sale of half a million king cakes in New Orleans each year, and another 50,000 shipped out of state; and that 12 and half tons of beads are tossed from floats (but do not fret for a number of organizations recycle the beads).
From the information I have found, I think that just may be the tip of the iceberg.
And while some take the deeply-rooted religious aspects of all this very seriously, there will always be those that don’t, but don’t let that spoil your view of this huge and colorful annual event.
The whole spectacle is, I imagine, quite a sight to see, a thing to witness, and something pretty neat to ponder.
Myself, I’ve always found the brand of religion I was brought up with sort of boring in comparison to others that have these physical requirements of fasting as sacrifice. It is good to learn this, and good to challenge my views on strengthening my faith. We Catholics and Protestants all pray to the same God, after all.
So, as the celebration of Easter draws ever nearer, however you worship, prepare, pray, ponder, believe, live in what it is you believe, dwell on it, celebrate it, it is my sincere hope that it brings you rejuvenation and hope, and that it brings you joy, too.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.