The season of Septuagesima in which we find ourselves has a number of popular names: “Carnival” from carne vale – farewell to meat, in token of the approach of Lent. Another is Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday,” the last day before the fasting and abstinence of Ash Wednesday. Now, if all you know about Mardi Gras is the exposure of flesh and heavy drinking on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street in the days before Lent, you may be forgiven for thinking that Catholics ought to have nothing to do with it. But even there, the sweep by mounted police down Bourbon Street at the stroke of Midnight reminds one of the roots of the festival – as do the ashes on the foreheads of some of the most bleary-eyed the next day.
But outside of the French Quarter, for the most part occupied by tourists from exotic places like Cincinnati during the days of revelry, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a very different thing from an X-rated bacchanal, indeed. The semi-secret organisations or “Krewes” that put on the parades and balls that are the heart of the celebration cater to various groups in the city and suburbs, from the old-line elite to glad-handing businessmen. While the latter celebrations are often private, white-tie affairs (especially among the older, more prestigious krewes), the parades feature incredible floats from which krewe members toss “throws” at the bystanders in response to countless calls to “throw me sumpthin,’ Mistah!” Here and there you may be treated to seeing the “Mardi-Gras Indians” in their fantastic costumes. Do not be surprised to see children with their parents enjoying the fun, as a band strikes up Mardi-Gras’ ancient theme song, “If Ever I Cease to Love.” Outside the Quarter, Mari-Gras is for everyone, and the churches join in the fun in various ways.
This pleasant riot has a certain rhythm to it. Mardi-Gras season in New Orleans really begins with the King Cake parties on Epiphany. From that time on the various Krewes hold their functions in ever greater number. Although it is only the second oldest, founded in 1872, the Krewe of Rex’s King is also King of Mardi Gras. On Lundi Gras night, two days before Ash Wednesday, the King of Rex and his court arrive by barge on the Mississippi River; he will rule over the city during the festivities. Rex’s parade on Mardi Gras is in the Garden District, and as it passes Gallier Hall, the former city hall, the Mayor will toast Rex’s sovereign. That night, the Ball of Rex is presided over by the King. Toward the end, His Majesty and his retinue proceed to the nearby Ball of the Krewe of Comus – the oldest of the Krewes. At the stroke of Midnight, the two Monarchs toast one another, and Mardi Gras is ended for the Crescent City’s polite society just as surely as the police end it for the folk on Bourbon Street.
But even as one would be mistaken to think that Mardi Gras is merely the unappetizing spectacle offered up in the French Quarter, so too would he be wrong to think that it is a purely New Orleans phenomenon. The interior of Southern Louisiana also boasts a number of Mardi Gras celebrations. Some are urban reflections of New Orleans: Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, and Natchitoches, for example, with parades and balls of their own. But in the Cajun countryside, such customs as the Courir de Mardi Gras hold sway. The realm of Mardi Gras in not confined, however, to the borders of the Bayou State: it extends to the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Mobile; Pensacola, Natchez, Galveston, and St. Louis. Much of this revelry is motivated by modern commercialism; but the fact remains that the custom has taken root primarily in areas with a lingering French Catholic influence.
Not surprisingly, Mardi Gras or Carnaval flourishes in the rest of Francophonie: Quebec, Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and countless towns and cities throughout France, most especially Paris. But you need not speak French: the celebrations take place throughout the Catholic World. Perhaps the most famous (and, at times, infamous) are to be found in Rio, Venice, Cologne, and Rome itself, where in recent years it has begun to approach once more the importance it held under Papal rule. Even the English maintain the custom of eating pancakes on “Shrove Tuesday.” The ubiquity of such celebrations in most areas where Catholicism affected the local culture to any degree is, of course, the key to the celebration’s origins in having a riotous good time before Lent and its rigours.
But even given such pious origins, in many places it does indeed lead to the sorts of excesses to be encountered on Bourbon Street. Ought modern Catholics join in the fun? Indeed they may – more than that, they should! But there is a caveat in that injunction. Our ancestors celebrated to the best of their ability because they kept Lent very strictly: indeed, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the wise author of The Physiology of Taste, tells us what Lent was like in pre-Revolutionary France:
No body breakfasted, and therefore all were more hungry than usual.
All dined as well as possible, but fish and vegetables are soon gone through with. At five o’clock all were furiously hungry, looked at their watches and became enraged, though they were securing their soul’s salvation.
At eight o’clock they had not a good supper, but a collation, a word derived from cloister, because at the end of the day the monks used to assemble to comment on the works of the fathers, after which they were allowed a glass of wine.
Neither butter, eggs, nor any thing animal was served at these collations. They had to be satisfied with salads, confitures, and whitemeats, a very unsatisfactory food to such appetites at that time. They went to bed, however, and lived in hope as long as the fast lasted.
The observing of fasting, gave rise to an unknown pleasure, that of the Easter celebration.
A close observation shows that the elements of our enjoyment are, difficult privation, desire and gratification. All of these are found in the breaking of abstinence. I have seen two of my grand uncles, very excellent men, too, almost faint with pleasure, when, on the day after Easter, they saw a ham, or a pate brought on the table. A degenerate race like the present, experiences no such sensation.
Facing forty days of such discipline, saying farewell to meat and public jollity in general seemed to require celebration far beyond the norm. But Dom Gueranger, in his notes on Quinquagesima Sunday, has some worthwhile thoughts:
How far from being true children of Abraham are those Christians who spend this and the two following days in intemperance and dissipation, because Lent is so soon to be upon us. We can easily understand how the simple manners of our Catholic forefathers could keep a leave-taking of the ordinary way of living, which Lent was to put a stop to, and reconcile their innocent Carnival with Christian gravity; just as we can understand how their rigorous observance of the laws of the Church for Lent would inspire certain festive customs at Easter. Even in our own times, a joyous Shrovetide is not to be altogether reprobated, provided the Christian sentiment of the approaching holy Season of Lent be strong enough to check the evil tendency of corrupt nature: otherwise the original intention of an innocent custom would be perverted, and the forethought of Penance could in no sense be considered as the prompter of our joyous farewell to ease and comforts. While admitting all this, we would ask, what right or title have they to share in these Shrovetide rejoicings, whose Lent will pass and find them out of the Church, because they will not have complied with the precept of Easter Communion? And they, too, who claim dispensations from abstinence and fasting during Lent, and, from one reason or another, evade every penitential exercise during the solemn Forty Days of Penance, and will find themselves at Easter as weighed down by the guilt and debt of their sins as they were on Ash Wednesday, – what meaning, we would ask, can there possibly be in their feast-making at Shrovetide?
Brillat-Savarin describes how, even before 1789, Lenten discipline had begun to erode:
Young persons of a certain age, were not forced to fast, nor were pregnant women, or those who thought themselves so. When in that condition, a soup, a very great temptation to those who were well, was served to them.
Then people began to find out that fasting disagreed with them, and kept them awake. All the little accidents man is subject to, were then attributed to it, so that people did not fast, because they thought themselves sick, or that they would be so. Collations thus gradually became rarer.
This was not all; some winters were so severe that people began to fear a scarcity of vegetables, and the ecclesiastical power officially relaxed its rigor.
The duty, however, was recognised and permission was always asked. The priests were refused it, but enjoined the necessity of extra alms giving.
The Revolution came, which occupied the minds of all, that none thought of priests, who were looked on as enemies to the state.
Although Eastern Catholics and Orthodox still keep Lent strictly, the Latin Church continued to relax its discipline. By Brillat-Savarin’s time, eggs and cheese had begun to be permitted. By the period of Vatican II, the Lenten fast permitted two collations and a full meal; complete abstinence from meat was restricted to Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday, while on Wednesdays and Saturdays meat was permitted at the principal meal. After the Council, of course, the fast was confined to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence to the Fridays. Many of us find even this too difficult.
Writing in 1741, Pope Benedict XIV declared that “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it, we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it, we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it, we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted, but that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” Looking at the years since then, one cannot help but think that the Pontiff knew what he was saying.
With all that in mind, if a Catholic of to-day wants to truly enjoy this wonderful season, he should resolve first of all to keep Lent as strictly and prayerfully as he can. That way, instead of Mardi-Gras being a mere meaningless celebration, it will be a joyous way of preparing for what lies ahead. Needless to say, he should enjoy the balls and parades and avoid the fleshly temptations. But there is more than this. Dom Gueranger cites St. Francis de Sales on the proper manner of celebrating Carnival: “…let those who must go, on these days, and mingle in the company of worldlings, be guided by St. Francis of Sales, who advises them to think, from time to time, on such considerations as these:- that while all these frivolous, and often dangerous, amusements are going on, there are countless souls being tormented in the fire of hell, on account of the sins they committed on similar occasions; that, at that very hour of the night, there are many holy Religious depriving themselves of sleep in order to sing the divine praises and implore God’s mercy upon the world, and upon them that are wasting their time in its vanities; that there are thousands in the agonies of death, whilst all that gaiety is going on; that God and his Angels are attentively looking upon this thoughtless group; and finally, that life is passing away, and death so much nearer each moment.”
The good Benedictine prescribes as a practise during this time the Forty Hours Devotion, which was originated by the 16th century Archbishop of Bologna, Gabriel Cardinal Paleotti precisely to pray for the souls of those who sinned by excess during Carnival. Given that there are few opportunities for this particular devotion to-day, one might slip into a church, make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and pray for all those sinning during this time (you might remember the whole of Bourbon Street, at the very least!), as well as for the souls in Purgatory whose misdeeds at this time helped land them there.
It may seem strange to mingle such sombre thoughts with celebration; but in the Traditional Liturgy, after all, the purple vestments of the season and the farewell to Alleluia the day before Septuagesima Sunday ought to have caught our attention. For the truth is, that in our religion – that is to say, in reality – joy and sorrow, feasting and fasting, are never far apart, and can never be completely separated: our Christmas joys cannot and should not disguise the fact that the Infant of Bethlehem grew into the Man of Sorrows; the Friday upon which occurred His most dolorous Passion was and ever shall be “Good.” We should indeed celebrate Carnival to the best of our ability, while bearing in mind the fasting, abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving we have set ourselves for Lent and making reparation for the sins of our fellows. At the same time, if we keep Lent as strictly as ever did our fathers in the Faith and our Eastern brethren, we should be all the more joyful reflecting on the upcoming Crucifixion and Resurrection. For the believing Catholic, every time is a good time, one way or the other.