Concerning Mardi Gras

The Epiphany season is drawing to a close, and for people in areas with a history of French influence (including Louisiana and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts), that means it’s almost Mardi Gras.

Growing up in North Alabama as I did, I knew very little about Mardi Gras, except 1) it was something “only those people down in New Orleans and Mobile do” and 2) “It’s just for the Catholics to see how big they can sin before they repent the next day to start Lent.”

What I’ve come to believe over the years is that neither one of these statements is true.

1) Yes, Mardi Gras is a big deal in New Orleans and Mobile, but it’s also a big deal in South Mississippi and many other places too. Furthermore, whether you call it Mardi Gras, Carnaval, Shrove Tuesday, Bannock Night, Fasching, or one of the many other names by which it is known, the day is celebrated by millions of people the world over.

2) Shrove Tuesday (its English name) is not just something “those Catholics” do, and it is not just an excuse to “sin big” before Lent begins the next day (Ash Wednesday). Sure, a lot of people treat it that way, but that doesn’t mean this is why Shrove Tuesday exists.

Yes, Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday” and Carnaval means “farewell to meat” (not “celebration of the flesh”, unless by “flesh” you mean animal flesh, i.e., meat), but that is because, under Lenten restrictions during the Middle Ages, many Christians did not eat meat or fatty foods, so the last day before Lent began was the last day to get those types of foods out of the house. In this way, “Fat Tuesday” is no different from the thorough Spring Cleaning of homes that takes place before Passover, when all leaven is removed from the house. Instead of throwing out any meat, fat, milk, eggs, etc. in the house, Christians came up with ways to celebrate the day by making festive foods that would use up these particular ingredients.

So, in England, Shrove Tuesday became a day for pancakes (using up a lot of milk, eggs, and fat). In Scotland, it was known as Bannock Night (Scottish drop bannocks are like pancakes made with oats). The popular Mardi Gras “King Cake” is made from the rich French bread dough known as brioche, which is full of eggs, milk, and sugar. (The first King Cake is eaten on Epiphany, January 6. See below for the connection between Epiphany and Shrove Tuesday.)

“Aha!” some may shout! “You said celebrate! See? They’re just looking for an excuse to have a party!” As a Protestant, even as a Protestant minister, I do not, cannot understand the Protestant, and (it seems) particularly the Reformed aversion to celebrating and feasting before the Lord. The Reformed, if anyone, should be ready and able to celebrate better than anyone. God commands feasting in the Bible: we act as if he grudgingly allows it at best.

So why feast on Shrove Tuesday? Aren’t we just “sinning that grace may abound”? No.

Shrove Tuesday is the culmination of the Epiphany season just as Epiphany itself is the culmination of the Christmas season. At Christmas, the light has come. At Epiphany, the light is manifested to the Gentiles. The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday (this coming Sunday), in which Christ displays the light of his glory to his disciples. On Shrove Tuesday, we celebrate that Light with one final feast before it is obscured for a time, but of course the Light is not extinguished. After we get to the other side of the Lenten season, which reaches its apex at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Light seems completely extinguished, but of course it returns on Easter Sunday, even brighter than it was before. Remember, Shrove Tuesday is during the Winter: the Light is shining in the darkness. But Easter is in the Spring. Really, Easter (the Great 50 Days of Easter, the “queen of seasons”) is the Spring.

Finally, from a practical standpoint, what better way can there be to reach out to your community than by celebrating this feast in a positive, Christ-honoring way? Do we expect to win over unsaved neighbors who may enjoy parades, King Cake, and beads by wagging our fingers in their faces and saying “We don’t do Mardi Gras!”? If we understand the spiritual meaning behind the seasons, we can present a corrective to the abuses of Mardi Gras without completely alienating ourselves from our culture. Could this be part of what being “in the world, but not of the world” means?

So this Shrove Tuesday/Mardis Gras/Carnaval/Fasching/Bannock Night, celebrate! Feast in the light of Christ. And invite your friends, especially those who do not yet know that Light, to feast with you.

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
This entry was posted in Food, Fun, Holidays, Holy Days. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Concerning Mardi Gras

  1. Adrienne says:

    Thank you. Thank you for this post. I am from New Orleans and grew up with Mardi Gras a natural part of my life. It was a family holiday for us. All of the family (big family of aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts, grandparents, you get the idea) attended the parades, mostly day parades, on the West Bank that were near my grandparents’ house. We would always park behind this and then set up our lawn chairs in front of it. We even have pictures of my cousin & I in a playpen behind the chairs at the ripe ole age of 5 mths. It was a sad day when I was too old (read big) to get on my dad’s or any of my willing uncle’s shoulders while watching the parades. Anyways, I could reminisce for a long time. Those memories have a happy and loving glow around them. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with Mardi Gras until I was much older. Then when we moved to North Louisiana the other kids used to always say with awe in their voices something to the effect of, “wow, you’ve been to the Mardi Gras.” That always drove me crazy and I felt so sorry for them. Thank you for showing where the holiday can be celebrated by Christians and even used to love others and show others Christ love. I learned some stuff from this post and appreciate hearing something other than all about the evil Mardi Gras.

  2. RevJATB says:

    Thanks for the comment. Sorry, I messed up in posting it and your picture link got lost. Please post the link again. Thanks!

  3. Hey Adrienne. Yes, it was great time for me growing up too. Having grown up on the MS coast, Gulfport, we were right in the middle of it too. It was as much of a cultural and natural thing as it was for anything else. When I went away to college I couldn’t understand why we didn’t get out for Mardi Gras and why everyone at that [Christian] college thought I was soooooo worldly and sinful for even having grown up with it in my life. Phooey on them! They just didn’t know how to celebrate – paaaaarrrty!

  4. me-cow says:

    🙂

  5. cancerman says:

    You mean Mardi Gras is not about the Pope throwing beads to girls with low self esteem?

    I like the celebration part. I’ve always struggled with the giving things up for lent part. Didn’t Christ die so we could enjoy the benefits of his reign?

  6. RevJATB says:

    Cancerman,

    I think you’ll enjoy this link. It’s a sermon by Paul F. M. Zahl about Ash Wednesday and about Lent in general. I think he’s expressing what you’re expressing.

  7. Frank says:

    Christ didn’t die so we could live without penitence or without confronting ourselves and our weaknesses. That’s what Lent is about. It’s a preparation for Easter via reminders of what it is about us that required the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

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