February 17, 2019Download the Bulletin as a PDF
Did purple, green and gold become the de facto colors of Mardi Gras in America because the Krewe of Rex, formed by New Orleans businessmen in 1872 and charged with the responsibility for throwing a lavish reception for a visiting Russian dignitary, chose those hues to honor Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich? Perhaps. His coat of arms bears red, blue, gold, black and white. Twenty years later the same Krewe of Rex unveiled the symbolism of those three official colors: purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power.
In Mainz, Germany, the official colors for Fasching are red, white, blue and gold, red being the only color in the once predominantly Catholic city’s coat of arms. The famous celebration of Fasching in Cologne, which commences at 11:11 a.m. on November 11 (neither nod to nor snub of Armistice Day as it predates the end of the Great War by many years) but continues in earnest with New Year’s Day and Epiphany, culminating in the last six days beginning with what some Germans called Fat Thursday and then the grand parade on Rose Monday, is dominated by blue, red and gold. Did the French who brought Mardi Gras to our shores also import the emblematic azure to their Eastern frontier? Possibly but not on purpose. Blue and red were prominent colors in the uniforms of the armies of France and also of Prussia, occupying forces who were and continue to be mocked by parade-goers.
Since these holidays begin and end with religious holy days, we would be remiss not to observe the priest’s liturgical wardrobe over the course these weeks. On Epiphany he would don the most festive color in the sacristy: gold. In the weeks after Epiphany he vests in the customary green. That accounts for only two of the three colors of our Mardi Gras. Purple wouldn’t allude to Lent since Mardi Gras is everything but Lenten.
But wait. There’s more. In the ordinary liturgical observance of the last fifty some odd years, green remains the color of the liturgical season up until Ash Wednesday. In the older ritual of the Roman Rite, the season of Lent is preceded by two and half weeks of quasi-penance. As of the third Sunday before Lent the Holy Mass omits the Gloria and the Alleluia. Guess what color the priest wears. Violet.
Since at least the 8th century those three Sundays have been called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, a reference to there being roughly seventy, sixty and fifty days, respectively, before Easter. The first Sunday, and indeed the whole season, of Lent is called in Latin “Quadragesima” in reference to the forty days of penance. Incidentally, “Septuagesima” not only is the unofficial name for this period of sacred time but it also marks the official beginning of Mardi Gras in some Catholic countries such as Italy.
Carne vale! Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Fr. Christopher J. Pollard
p.s. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13,8)