I have often (TOO often, some
would say) cited familiar holidays of modern times (Halloween,
Easter, etc.) as prime examples of how the past is still very
much with us, still intrinsically linked as we unknowingly reenact
the ancient rites and rituals of our forbears.
For some reason, in all the
years I've been writing this column, we have somehow escaped
one of the prime examples: Mardi Gras.
As with so many others, 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.