Jan/Feb 2008



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 Halloween—they 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.

Happy Carnival!

—Joe Nolte