Many Christians find themselves in the doldrums between the celebration of the joy of Christmas and the solemnity of Lenten preparation for Easter. For them and for the pagan in all of us, the mid-winter "season" of carnival and the indulgence of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) brings some needed relief.
We may think primarily of the lavish, over-the-top celebrations held annually in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans as representative of this phenomenon today. Both cities become epicenters of publicly sanctioned debauchery, with local citizens and tourists by the planeload joining in. Venice, Italy, too, is well known for its colorful and indulgent carnival season.
During Super Bowl III, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath stunned the sports world with his promised upset victory, held in New Orleans during carnival. The root of carnival, of course, comes from "flesh" or "meat" (the carno or carnis part) and levare for "removal." Though that meaning would evolve to the sense of bidding good-bye (vale) to meat, as well. And plenty of meat consumption was going on down there in the Big Easy before, during and after that particular Super Bowl.
Before the age of refrigeration, Christians often abstained from cheese, dairy and meat products in anticipation of the "Great Fast" of the 40-day season of Lent. The last Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday ("fifty days" -- signifying the seven weeks until Easter) was also called Domenica Carnevala. This voluntary period of pre-fasting would come to be known as pre-Lent and began in the Roman calendar as far back as three Sundays before Ash Wednesday. That was really pushing it.
Then came the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which marks the official start of Lent, for some a gloomy period of self-denial. I remember promising to give up candy and/or TV for 40 days as a kid. Sometimes I succeeded in my quest for spiritual purification. Sometimes I did not.
The day is observed in the church unofficially as Shrove Tuesday. The name comes from the custom of going to confession (i.e. "shrift") before the onset of Lent, in order to unburden the soul of sin before embarking on the path of spiritual cleansing and renewal -- carrying less baggage into the "desert" of Lent in which we are called to imitate the Lord's retreat to same in preparation for his public ministry.
So, Tuesday ... Tuesday is the very last chance to indulge, if one is so inclined, before the privations that lie ahead. And Shrove Tuesday is better known to the public at large as Fat Tuesday.
As I write, I happen to be on a personal writing retreat where Mobile Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico -- the home of the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. In 1699 Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville recorded the first observance of Mardi Gras in Mobile, then the capital of the Louisiana Territory possessed by the French. One of the early French explorers, Le Moyne noted that the men in his camp marked the occasions with dancing, feasting and masked revelry.
The citizenry of Mobile has made a fine art of Mardi Gras ever since: with parades held by so-called mystic societies who plan their floats and parties with precision and pomp years ahead of time. Today society balls and a graveside memorial for Joe Cain, credited with reviving the Mardi Gras tradition in the city during the last century, are also held as part of weeks'-long events.
And that's just one Southern city's serious observance of this most un-serious of holidays.
Food is a hugely important element in the picture of Shrove or Fat Tuesday, which is also known as "Pancake Tuesday," after the common practice of starting the day with flapjacks. Author Meredith Gould explains: "In England, Pancake Day is celebrated with races at which women over the age of 16, frying pans in hand, trot over 415 yards while tossing pancakes over at least three times." Sounds like fun.
The so-called King's Cake is baked in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast region for Mardi Gras: A miniature doll of the baby Jesus is baked into the super-sweet cake with multi-colored icing. Whoever comes up with the baby in his or her slice will provide the cake the following year.
So, what does all this add up to? For me, Mardi Gras has significance not as a day of indulgence, but, like Christmas Eve perhaps, as a day that precedes a particularly solemn season. I tend to eschew big public parties and crowds, though if there's free food, you might very well find me there in the corner ... As with many things in life, it's the anticipation that makes it pleasurable, and the eve of Ash Wednesday offers a moment to experience an even greater anticipation -- perhaps the greatest of all for believers.
Oh, what a relief it is to indulge in that last bit of feasting and revelry before the long blackout before Easter. Even if, for me, that indulgence is a rerun of the previous Sunday's episode of Downton Abbey. Now that's a guilty, albeit non-fattening pleasure!