Thursday, January 5, 2012

Catholic Roots: Epiphany to Mardis Gras

Unless you're from New Orleans or you're a really, really good Catholic, you probably didn't know that Epiphany (January 6th, or the Twelfth Night after Christmas) is the beginning of Mardis Gras.

Yes, you heard it right. Mardis Gras, that decadent, lavish, semi-pornographic paganesque celebration has it's Catholic roots in Christmas.

A King cake with baby in the center

If you're a half-way decent Catholic, you probably know that Epiphany is when the three Wise Men came to visit baby Jesus. It's also the day Catholics take down their dried out Christmas trees. Shakespeare even wrote a play about it and called it Twelfth Night even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas or Wise Men. (I think he just wanted to jump on the Christmas was most-likely an early version of the Justin Beiber Christmas Special). 

Mardis Gras literally means "Fat Tuesday", (at least that's what my French friends tell me). But why fat? And why, oh why, on a Tuesday?

Well...that's what the French called it because they probably only eat fat on Tuesdays...that's why they're so skinny. But in Italy they call it Carnevale,  or carne, (meat), vale (goes away). And of course, this is where we get our lovely American term for the expensive outdoor event that comes to town and sells deep-fried turkey legs and funnel cakes.

I did a little research and found out some more tidbits that I didn't know before.

So, you see, Mardis Gras isn't just the one day before Ash Wednesday, it's actually the entire celebratory season from Epiphany until the Lenten season of penance begins at midnight of Ash Wednesday.

The King's cake, which is a mandatory part of Mardis Gras in New Orleans, actually commemorates the route of the Three Kings (also known as the Three Wise Men) who traveled from the East to seek the Infant King of the world, Jesus. They took a circuitous route in order to evade King Herod's men. (Hence, the circular cake). Herod had instructed the three kings to return to him after finding the Infant King in order that King Herod might come and pay homage to Him. (Yeah, right, Herod!) The three kings weren't called "wise men" for nothing. They never told Herod where He was.

The colors are significant too. The purple stands for justice, green is faith and gold is power. The Church uses these colors throughout the liturgical year as well. Purple is the color worn for Advent and Lent and signifies penance; green is worn during Ordinary Time and represents the hope of life eternal and new life; Gold represents something highly valued and esteemed.

Oh, and the tiny baby in the middle? He's actually supposed to be baked in the cake and the person who finds the baby (without actually eating it), gets to bring the next king cake or throw the next party.

Supposedly Catholics throw the best parties. That's why New Orleans, Rio and Venice have the biggest parties for Mardi Gras. That's where the Catholics live.

The English, on the other hand, have the lovely, staid tradition of "Pancake Day" or "Shrove Tuesday." Shrove Tuesday refers to the tradition of being "shriven" of one's sins on that day by making an examination of conscience and going to confession to prepare for the season of penance. (Notice how they're already lining up to confession and they haven't even done anything yet). I'm convinced it's the Protestant Kings and Queens of England that thwarted the riotous and raucous parties from crossing the Channel. It took all their royal persuasion to convince their loyal subjects that running through town flipping a pancake was just as much fun as dancing in  your undies on a float while people throw beer at you.

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