I see in Mardi Gras much of what I hear in a really good jazz band: a model for the just society, the joyous community, the heavenly city.
As a Louisiana native with Cajun French roots, I have recently found myself living almost a thousand miles away from Louisiana during Mardi Gras season. While living in the Midwest, I have tried to encourage my community members to laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll). Catholic friends sometimes ask, “Is it really okay to celebrate this holiday in good conscience?” or “The parades are just full of sin and debauchery, right?” While this can be true in certain pockets of celebrations, I propose that those who celebrate Carnival can actually cultivate a sense of communal gratitude, and I suggest that the Catholic values presented by Mardi Gras in the streets overflow into the celebration of the Eucharist, creating a greater disposition to communal worship in the pews.
Thinking back to March of last year, on a windy, chilly Tuesday at the University of Dayton in Ohio, a purple, green, and gold decorated golf cart, on loan from the President of the University, emerged from around the corner of the Jesse E. Philips Humanities Center. My friend and I were on the cart, taking multiple laps around Humanities Plaza. With a Bluetooth speaker tethered to the top of the cart, Mardi Gras music, such as “Big Chief,” “Iko Iko,” “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and “The Second Line” resounded throughout the plaza. Students and faculty stopped to witness this mysterious sight. Their faces turned from confusion to delight in an instant. My friend and I proceeded to throw beads and candy while a group of professors and students formed a parade procession behind the cart. We arrived at the steps in front of the building, and all feasted together on red beans, rice, and king cake.
While this homemade parade was happening in Dayton, the festivities evoked the grand celebrations taking place in the streets of New Orleans. It also occurred to me that the Mardi Gras festival that transpired in the streets or outside of the humanities center at UD is not that different from the liturgical celebration that also occurs in the pews at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception directly adjacent to this plaza. I do not mean to associate the Body of Christ with a slice of king cake—although some New Orleanians might describe this cinnamon pastry as divine! Instead, looking out into the plaza at the parade, which some Louisianians might decry as pathetic, there was a mysteriously unifying aspect of my university department celebrating together, just as I have witnessed in the Mass.
Catholic Meaning in Mardi Gras?
When the faithful actively participate together in the liturgy, there can be a unification of mind and heart. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council fathers describe “active participation,” as “full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (§14). This active participation is a unifying aspect of the liturgy and of life in the Holy Spirit, “whose fruit is holiness (cf. Rom 6:22; Gal 5:22), stirs up every baptized person and requires each to follow and imitate Jesus Christ, in embracing the beatitudes, in listening and meditating on the Word of God, in conscious and active participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church” (Christifideles laici §16).
Active participation does not happen in a vacuum. It is an embodied experience that takes place in the presence of others. As Catholics, our universal call to holiness is not confined to the walls of a church. Rather, we are sent forth from the liturgy to proclaim the Gospel through our lives. We are commissioned to practice Catholic social thought around the ideals of justice, faith, and the power of God. These ideals are also embedded in the celebration of Mardi Gras, which is symbolized by the colors purple, green, and gold. Mardi Gras thus is an ideal time to emphasize these core beliefs. Like the liturgy, this annual celebration can also be a chance for inclusivity because all are invited to join equally in the festivities.
The first Mardi Gras parade celebrated in the U.S. dates back to March 3, 1699, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville reached present-day New Orleans and held a celebration on a spot they named Pointe du Mardi Gras. Carnival derives from the medieval Latin carnelevarium, to remove meat or to take away the flesh. The original reason for Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, was to have a day of feasting and celebration immediately before the penitential practices of Lent begin.
In his 1995 book, All on a Mardi Gras Day, Reid Mitchell is hesitant to offer Carnival in New Orleans as access to the sacred, and quotes a Yankee chaplain as saying: “it is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.” Mitchell acknowledges that Mardi Gras has a history of violence and racism; it also brings threats of rowdiness, nudity, and excessive drinking. However, Mitchell does connect the celebration with the sacred, reconciling the negatives with some of the spiritual and social goods that Mardi Gras brings to communities:
I see in Mardi Gras much of what I hear in a really good jazz band: a model for the just society, the joyous community, the heavenly city. I see a recurring ritual devoted to spontaneity, a festival in which collective display is impossible without individual creativity, a form in which innovation is grounded in tradition. In short, a model for community where individual expression is the basis for social harmony and where continuity is the basis for creativity. And, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, I trust I will find in my hometown the creativity and good humor that will allow the best to endure, even if it must endure side by side with old troubles that should be long gone and human failings that will last till Gabriel’s horn. Few people in New Orleans look for the millennium, but when the millennium comes, it will look a lot like New Orleans.
Indeed, Mardi Gras can be a model of sorts for expressing communitas, allowing voices of the suppressed to be heard. Through festive play, or the virtue of eutrapelia, Catholic communities can grow in recognizing the elements often emphasized in the Catholic liturgy: wonder, amazement, and gratitude.
Becoming Carnival People
Timothy O’Malley, in his book, Becoming Eucharistic People: The Hope and Promise of Parish Life, examines Mardi Gras under Michael Paul Gallagher’s twelve features of culture. O’Malley proposes that the Carnival celebration fits well under number six: “culture must be comprehended in terms of meanings or beliefs, values, and customs or practices.” He details how humans are not automatons that should live without pleasure:
If you go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, there are certain meanings and beliefs that are proposed about what it means to be human. Human beings are made not just for work but also for festivity. Carnival turns the word upside down as much as the Gospel does. There are ways of behavior that are proposed, values that might otherwise seem out of place. If I showed up wearing plastic beads or carrying a coconut and a to-go cup of the finest daiquiri this side of paradise in the city of Cleveland, there would be inevitable confusion (and a possible arrest). In New Orleans, during Mardi Gras—and who am I kidding, the rest of the year—there are norms proposed about human behavior that are unique to that city. And these norms are passed on through the cycle of feasts and seasons related to Mardi Gras. You get a King Cake starting at Epiphany. You find the baby in the King Cake, making you the king or queen of the party and tasked with bringing the next King Cake to the next party. You start going to parades three weeks before the start of Lent. Meanings, morals, and tradition make up the culture of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
As O’Malley and Mitchell suggest, Catholic meaning can indeed be found behind the Carnival celebrations. Following the last parade of the evening on Tuesday in New Orleans, at about midnight, as I have witnessed, large sweeper trucks roll across the streets collecting as many beads as possible. This indicates that the celebrations are over, which leads right into Ash Wednesday.
After the Mardi Gras festivities here in Dayton with my university department, the next day we were seated in the chapel pews on campus, ready to receive our ashes, as an acknowledgment of our common sinful humanity and our need for God. We were united in the feasting, and we were united in the fasting. This cycle is exactly the liturgical cycle. As O’Malley remarks: “A Mardi Gras without Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the glorious celebration of the Resurrection of Christ becomes just another party among other parties.”
Ritual and communitas
Mardi Gras has made me deeply appreciative of God’s blessings, provisions, and love—especially through the gift of communitas. Unifying, in a way, our celebrations in the streets and in the pews could allow for our parishes, universities, and communities to be places of witness for embracing the liturgical cycle in multiple spaces of life. Like my department’s very miniature golf cart Mardi Gras parade, these Carnival rituals, I propose, could lead our Catholic communities to more fully live out the meaning of the Mardi Gras colors: justice, faith, and the power of God. Lastly, Mardi Gras has the ability to create a sense of gratitude for joy and communal rituals, as well as an appreciation for the present moment, which is key in the spiritual life.
In a most important way, Mardi Gras has shown me a way to cultivate a sense of wonder and mystery outside of church walls; in the liturgy, we lean into these two elements. We can, in the words of O’Malley, become “Eucharistic People,” or as I would like to say, become “Carnival people.” We can hope to be imitators of Jesus Christ, who took on everything except sin (especially not the Louisiana social sin of removing the knife from the king cake box!). Catholics can take Carnival time—saying farewell to the flesh—to welcome the liminal space of ritual and to leave behind fleshly celebrations of Carnival that do not resemble the Lord. By embracing a Catholic Carnival, and the Lent immediately following, we can be persons who live the liturgical cycle in fasting as well as feasting. We can live as people who believe that the Incarnation—the Word made flesh—really matters.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from a presentation for the Society of Catholic Liturgy Conference in Denver, CO.