February 10, 2019

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In Louisiana there is a long history behind the celebration of Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday” and a reference to the last day before the beginning of Lent). On 3 March 1699 a new fort on the Mississippi River 60 miles south of what is now New Orleans was christened “Point du Mardi Gras” by the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. It was the day before Ash Wednesday. His brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718, sixteen years after having established Mobile as the first capital of La Louisiane Française. New Orleans became the third capital of French Louisiana after Biloxi, another city founded by the French explorer, held the title for three short years.

Wealthy members of the colony threw lavish balls from the twelfth night of Christmas (Jan. 6) to the day before Fat Tuesday. Rule under the Spanish Crown from 1763 to 1802 is sometimes blamed or credited with a dampening of the festivities. In 1837 the first Mardi Gras parade took place in New Orleans.

The French celebrations, like those throughout Europe, date back to the Middle Ages. In Germany the celebration is called “Fasching” (a word that has lasted almost a thousand years even though the word from which it derives “vaschanc” now would be rendered “Fastenschank”, a reference to the last drink of alcohol served before forty days of penance preceding Easter) and was well recorded by the early 1200s, even being mentioned in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century romance Parzival about the hero’s quest for the Holy Grail. Cologne’s pre-Lent party begins on November 11 at 11 a.m. That’s a long drink.

Historians like to point out that in ancient Rome revelers celebrated a festival called Lupercalia in mid-February. Similarly Saturnalia took place in mid-December. Connections between these and the medieval festivities before Lent are mere suppositions.

The French and Germans do enjoy a Latin connection having more to do with linguistics than libations. Both “Carnaval” “Karneval” have come to be used interchangeably with “Mardi Gras” and “Fasching”. Dictionaries tell us that “carnelevarium” is Latin for “removing the meat” but I have not found it in Latin literature. In Italy the celebration is called “Carnevale”, in which we see clearly enough the two Latin words for “meat’ and “farewell”.

Although much of the weeks-long celebration in New Orleans is clean, the worst elements result in the human debris on display in the wee hours after Mardi Gras, which has come to be called “Trash Wednesday”, confirming the Latin expression “Corruptio optimi pessima”. Christians turn into something far worse than pagans when we forget who we are.

Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior. (Phil 3,17-20).

Fr. Christopher J. Pollard
p.s. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13,8)