In the spirit of ringing in
the New Year and taking a brief nostalgic look at Times Past,
we are moved to re-present the following column, which has not
seen print in 14 long years...
As with so many celebrations
we indulge in throughout the year, Mardi Gras began as a pagan
celebration of the triumph of Life over Death, as symbolized
by Spring triumphing over Winter. As we have seen, Easter and
May Day are both modern equivalents of this celebration, but
in France, where Spring may be imagined to have arrived a bit
earlier than in Germany or England, these celebrations would
take place a littler earlier.
At any rate, by the time of
Christ, when the Romans held dominion over what is now France,
these pagan rituals had already evolved into something very like
the Mardi Gras celebrations of today, complete with reveling,
mask wearing, parading, and so forth. (The masks were worn for
the same reason the Celts wore them on Halloweenthey were
thought to protect one from spirits!)
When Christianity spread through
Greece and Rome, and hence to Europe, this celebration was "adopted",
and just as Roman Saturnalia became Christmas, and the English
worship of the goddess Eastre became the Christian Easter, so
did this celebration become the harbinger of Lent, that Christian
institution where, for forty days prior to Easter, one was forbidden
to eat meat of any kind.
This celebration was renamed
"Carne Vale"Latin for "farewell meat".
Carne Vale came to be shortened to the more familiar "Carnival",
and while the more thin-blooded English limited their festivities
to eating pancakes ("shroves") and calling the final
day before Lent "Shrove Tuesday", the French celebrated
with much Wine and Reveling, calling the day "Fat Tuesday",
which translates in French to "Mardi Gras".
Mardi Gras hit New Orleans
with the French at the end of the 1600's, and by 1832 the great
parades we know and love today had been inaugurated.