Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The curiously twisted history of Mardi Gras


Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Fastnacht.


What’s all this fuss about a plain old Tuesday? 
Well, it’s all because of a dirty Wednesday.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which gets its first name from the ashes of burnt palm fronds that are placed upon a supplicant’s head, made in the sign of the cross. For Christian congregations, Ash Wednesday is considered the beginning of Lent -- the 40 days that lead up to Easter. 
(The word Lent is derived from the Old English word for spring “lencten”) 

Originally, the 40 days of Lent were meant to be sort of a religious boot camp to prepare converts to Christianity. Ash Wednesday was the kick-off that lead up to Super Sunday--Easter, when the converts would be baptized.  Eventually there was just about no one left in Rome to convert, so Lent itself was converted into a time of penance, of fasting, of abstinence.  Folks abstained from all sorts a good stuff including meat or “carne” (carne – flesh, the root word for  “carnival”). They also gave up eggs and dairy products. So on Tuesday, the day before the start of the Lenten fast, folks cleared out their cupboards of all the foods they couldn’t have for the next 40 days. They cooked ‘em up and ate like pigs. In essence they feasted before the fast. 

In France a fattened ox was paraded through the streets before the big communal BBQ, and thus the day was given the name Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday.)

The English do things their own way (like drive on the left hand side of the road) so they called this day Shrove Tuesday from an Olde English word “shrive” which means to confess, to clean out your soul. The English have a tradition of eating a dinner of  “Shrove cakes” dripping in butter. They are pancakes made with the eggs and dairy products you’re expelling from your home. And that’s why Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Tuesday.(I smell a product tie-in with Denny’s.)

Lent has a symbolic undertone as a time of cleansing in preparation for Easter and Spring. You first cleanse your cupboard, then your soul and eventually the entire house is purified. In the Ukraine, people traditionally whitewashed their homes inside and out.  Today we know this as Spring-cleaning.

The more astute readers of this blog may remember last year's Passover memo and have already noticed the similarity between Shrove Tuesday and the Jewish Passover tradition of all non-kosher foods containing yeast being consumed or disposed of before the holiday begins. It's also no coincidence that the celebration of Passover occurs very close to the Christian Lenten fast.  We'll get into that in a few weeks with an Easter/Passover posting. But for now we'll Passover that subject. Ugh.

Over the years the religious side of Shrove Tuesday has been replaced by the Narlins party down, shake your booty, Fat Tuesday  “Hey Mista Throw me zumthin” Cajun communal celebration.

King cake (originally 3 Kings Cake celebrating the Epiphany) with plastic baby Jesus inside.
Why New Orleans? And what’s a Cajun?

In 1763 the French and the English concluded one of their frequent World Wars with the Peace of Paris. We call it the French and Indian War because here the colonists fought the French and their Indian allies. In Europe it was referred to as the Seven Years War. It began in Western Pennsylvania and spread throughout the world. The French lost the war and in the process they lost the part of New France called Canada. The English expelled many of the French from the land of the loon. In particular the French who lived in an area along the Eastern coast called Acadia. The Brits renamed it New Scotland –Nova Scotia. The French migrated from Canada to the French territory along the Mississippi named for King Louis called Louisiana. When they got there folks asked them who they were and they replied: "Acadians." Apparently they slurred their speech because they were thereafter referred to not as Acadians, but Cajuns. It seems the Cajuns did a lot of slurring. We know their music as Zydeco. A strange word with an even stranger origin. The first big hit in this musical style had the title:“The String beans are too salty.” Of course its title was in French: “Les Haricots sont trop sel.” Somehow, haricots, pronounced: Arr-ree-co, morphed into “Zydeco.”

Okay, enough linguistic lunacy.

Point is the French Catholics in New Orleans kept alive the ancient Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras approach to Lent.

It’s obvious that Mardi Gras has a seamy undertone; its wild pagan sexual abandon is very close to the surface. Interesting isn’t it, that Tuesday/Mardi is named for a pagan god – Mars? Similarly, Tuesday is named for Tiw the Teutonic god of war.

Mardi Gras retains the concept of feasting before the fast, but folks gorge on sex and alcohol, not buttered pancakes. It’s more about booby flashing then soul searching. This non-religious celebration has more to do with the human flesh meaning of carne –carnal knowledge, than that of eating animal flesh – carnivorous.

Fun Mardi Gras Fact: In Athens, during the 6th cent. B.C., a yearly libidinous celebration in honor of the god Dionysus (Bacchus) was the first recorded instance of the use of a parade float. 

But as we’ve seen before, many religious holidays are instituted to suppress the pagan, bacchanalian side of society. No big surprise then, that it was during the Roman Empire that pagan carnivals got way out of hand. The major Roman carnivals were the Bacchanalia, the Saturnalia, and the Lupercalia.

Lupercalia still lives today in St. Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras. It was held annually on Feb. 15. This Roman fertility festival consisted of male youths who ran around town dressed in costumes (animal skins) slapping passersby on the rump with strips of goatskin. (Goats were the embodiment of sexuality; goats –horny—get it?) This was supposed to induce fertility and ward off evil. The straps were called “Februa” and thus February got its name. But you already know that from my last Valentine’s Day post.

In Europe, the tradition of fertility celebrations persisted well into Christian times.  Since they were deeply rooted in European folklore it was difficult for the church to stamp them out. So they were finally accepted and modified into church sanctioned events with the sexuality dialed way down, i.e. St. Valentine’s Day celebrates love not lust.

But as we can all plainly see on the news tonight, the pagan part of the Shrove Tuesday religious celebration has reared its horny little head.

Well that’s about it, I gotta go eat my pancake supper, get all my doubloons ready for my throws; go join my krewe, the Mystick Krewe of Comus  ‘n sashay down Bourbon Street.

Laissez les   bon     temps  rouler!
Let    the  good    times   roll!

Happy Lupercalia everyone!

Fat Dano

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