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The season has arrived, along with its festivities: the parades, good food and drinks, and parties in the streets. In these weeks between the feast of the Epiphany (always the first day after the 12th Day of Christmas), and the day before Ash Wednesday, a good bit of south Louisiana and nearby areas of the Gulf Coast (such as Mobile, AL) celebrate this happy carnival season of Mardi Gras.
The French words, Mardi Gras, literally mean ‘Fat Tuesday,’ the culminating day of these weeks of fun. But Mardi Gras as a title tends to be applied to the course of several weeks during which the parades occur, but also when formal balls and other social events are scheduled. And though these events are enjoyed and appreciated by folks who live in and around places like New Orleans, the schools close for a long weekend and many head off for skiing vacations out West. While the Crescent City, its streets, and hotels, are filled with visitors from equally distant places, often from the North.
Three main colors associated with Mardi Gras are much evident in float and parade costumes, home and business decorations, and especially in the profusion of plastic beads seen and thrown everywhere. They are gold, green, and purple. I am convinced that the source of these three colors derives from the broader, church-based, liturgical observances during and on either side of these weeks. Traditionally, on the feast of the Epiphany, inaugurating this season, liturgical churches such as Roman Catholic and Episcopal use gold for vestments and altar coverings. This seems likely due to the symbolism of the gold gift(s) presented to the newborn King upon the visit of the Magi (or ‘Wise Men’).
On most Sundays following the Epiphany during these weeks, the traditional color for vestments and altar fabrics is green, perhaps because these Sundays are usually described as occurring during “Ordinary Time,” the same practice that happens during summer Sundays. The third color, purple, I think derives from the traditional color for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, which directly follow Mardi Gras.
Not so long ago the radio waves were filled songs like, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” songs evoking images of Christmas lights and trees, and snowy landscapes. Though surely to a different tune, and accompanied by very different imagery, the same words could well be sung here now in south Louisiana!
PS: I should have included King Cakes in the first published version of this blog.
During this Mardi Gras season, King Cakes are ubiquitous, especially in workplaces and offices, in teachers’ lounges and similar contexts, and at so many party gatherings. Note the presence of the frosting and beads in the three colors noted above, as well as the gold coins. Most commonly, these cakes have baked into them a little baby, of course symbolic of the one the Epiphany Magi came to worship, who would be proclaimed as King.
At the pancake supper for our local Anglican church, I asked the retired priest if he was going to shrive us for Shrove Tuesday. He laughed, and said, “You’re very traditional, aren’t you.”