Hey Mister! Throw Me Some Beads!
Believe it or not, a lot of holidays that are celebrated today by Christians and non-Christians alike have their origins in the Catholic Church. Mardi Gras is no exception. WHAT?! Mardi Gras is a Catholic holiday?! Well, sort of and by sort of, I mean yes. It is more cultural than it is religious though.
Mardi Gras is a French phrase meaning “Fat Tuesday”. It is a floating holiday which means that it doesn’t have a set date that it happens on year after year. Rather it is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday. This is six weeks before Easter is celebrated in the Catholic and most Protestant and Baptist Churches. The reason that it falls before Ash Wednesday is because the season that starts with Ash Wednesday. That season is called Lenten season or simply Lent. Mardi Gras is the last chance to enjoy whatever you are giving up for Lent. Historically the season of Lent was simply a season of fasting similar to that of Ramadan in the Islamic religion. Through the years though it became a season where one simply gives up something that is probably detrimental to their life or to their relationship with God. I gave up soda for Lent one year and I have problems drinking it now because it tastes gross to me. Fasting seasons are good. Whether you subscribe to the religion or not, they have their benefits.
The days leading up to Mardi Gras are called Carnevale or Carnival depending on where in the world you are. It’s the same thing though. Carnevale actually started in Italy as a way to help the new converts to Christianity be comfortable in their new religion. Carnevale was put in place of the old festival of Saturnalia in a similar manner to that of the Christmastide season was. Carnevale begins on, or around, the beginning of Epiphany. It is also known as King’s Day and celebrates the day that the Magi visited the Christ Child. This is where the King Cake tradition comes from. Inside each King Cake is baked a little plastic baby that represents the Christ Child. The tradition with the King Cakes say that whomever gets the Christ Child in their slice of cake has to supply the cake for the next year’s Mardi Gras celebration. The colours on the King Cake also reflect the tradition of Epiphany being the day of the Magi’s visit. The gold obviously represents the gift of gold. The purple is for the gift of Franincense and royal power. Green is for faith in the life everlasting represented by the gift of myrrh. Nowadays if you were to ask people they would respond a bit diferently. They would probably tell you that purple is for justice, green is faith, and power is represented by the colour gold. Regardless of what people say they represent, the colours are related to the traditions of Epiphany. It’s just what they represent that is sometimes up for debate. Interesting thing of note, this is for all of my literature nerds, Epiphany is also called Twelfth Night. Yes, Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will is about the end of Carnevale. He actually wrote a play about Mardi Gras to be performed on Mardi Gras. Who says that Shakespeare isn’t fun to read at all? Some of his plays are quite hilarious. On the flip side, some of his plays are incredibly depressing.
The traditions of having parties and parades began, as mentioned above, in Italy. Oh Italia, you are a great country filled with history that has influenced the world. Also, you have great food. Most will cite the city of Venice as being where the tradition of wearing masks and masquerades began. That seems to make sense. Venice is known for the beautiful masks that are made there. That picture up there shows my mask that came from Venice. Also, that is the King Cake my Nerdastic Uncle, good Catholic Sicilian Aunt, and their two adorkable kiddos sent us. I ended up getting the baby out of that cake by the way. My cat also got in the spirit by wearing beads. The tradition around the beads also goes back to ancient times when returning armies would throw small trinkets to the citizens of their city when they would return victorious from battle! Just don’t go throwing any golden coconuts. You have to hand those down to folks now.
In short, while many people will assume that Mardi Gras is a Pagan holiday, it isn’t. Mardi Gras is a way to make sure that you have one last day to enjoy the world before you have to give up things for Lent. It celebrates the end of Epiphany! Seriously people! Learn about your holidays before you start accusing people of celebrating demonic things.