I participated in a conversation today regarding the value of Mardi Gras and whether a Christian (any Christian) could participate in any Mardi Gras observance. Debauchery was a theme that came up in the discussion and more than one judgment that nothing about Mardi Gras could possibly have a purpose acceptable to a practicing Christian. One person observed that it might be possible for a Catholic to celebrate Mardi Gras with a pure heart but that this person would be “hard-pressed to find even one.” Sigh.
First. Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” and it is the day before Ash Wednesday which kicks off the observance of Lent. In times past, Lent was observed by all practicing Catholics by rigorous fasting. It is still observed by those in the Eastern Orthodox traditions with rigorous fasting. Mardi Gras was a last chance to clean out the pantry of those things which would be forbidden during the coming fast. Pancakes and sausage, which used up the remaining dairy, eggs, syrup, sugar, oil and meat were and are traditional foods for Mardi Gras. It had a practical origin. It still has a practical origin. Today in the Roman Catholic Tradition, the observance of Lent can involve rigorous fasting but that is optional. The Catholic Church suggests both the removal of worldly distractions (fasting but perhaps from the internet, or from TV as well as from food) and the addition of positive spiritual disciplines such as extra prayer time or Bible study. Some families choose to make a sacrifice as a family as well as more individual disciplines. If your family has chosen to give up sweets, getting that last bag of M&M’s out of the house so they don’t call to you during the night for the next six weeks is just a practical thing. It’s a human thing too. How many of us, and here I am looking right in the mirror, having decided firmly to begin a diet on Monday don’t look at the burger and fries on Sunday and say, “Yep. I’m having those and do they come with an ice cream sundae?”?
Are there places where Mardi Gras is marked by licentiousness, gluttony, and debauchery? No question about it, there are. But the fact that some people celebrate the New Year with drunken revelry, doesn’t mean that New Years celebrations are inherently wrong. Christmas is grossly commercialized and so is Easter, but should the Christian Church stop celebrating the birth and resurrection of Jesus? The same holds true for Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras has a practical and human purpose and for every single devout Catholic I know, its celebration is marked by family good times and a sure focus on the Lenten sacrifice ahead. Yes, my children will probably eat more sweets than they would normally. I hardly think that qualifies for “debauchery” or “gluttony” anymore than eating those nasty marshmallow creations that some people consume on Easter. Yes, I mean Peeps.
And in fact, some of the symbols associated with the traditional observance of Mardi Gras do have religious significance. The Mardi Gras season begins with Epiphany, where we celebrate the kings/wisemen finding Jesus. Thus “King Cake.” A baby, representing the Christ Child, is hidden in the cake. This represents Christ being hidden from King Herod who wanted to kill him and the wisemen not telling King Herod where he was. The Mardi Gras colors have meaning and are all originally intended to represent Christ bringing justice (purple), faith (green=growth of faith), and power (gold=Jesus is the King of Kings and ultimately holds all power).
The Mardi Gras season is a time when Catholics take some time for reflection and plan how best to observe Lent. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I have had with fellow Catholics in the last week or so about plans for Lent and all of them have centered around spiritual disciplines and reading material. Are some of them going to a Mardi Gras parade and catch some beads with all of their clothes on? Probably but that’s not what we talked about because that isn’t the important part. The focus of this time of year for most Catholics I know is not the fun aspects of King Cake, beads, and parades, but rather the serious spiritual aspects of refocusing, of re-evaluating, removing the distractions, and preparing ones heart to truly receive the Risen Lord.
It’s too easy to just look at the excesses of Mardi Gras shown in the media and that are used to market tourist packages and assume that’s all there is to it. If your religious practice does not include a rigorous observance of Lent, I would just like to ask that in charity, you also not jump to too many conclusions about the celebration of Mardi Gras in its proper place.