As a Louisiana native, I find Pennsylvania’s visible change of seasons to be new. Growing up, I did not see white winter snow or the colors of fall.
Louisiana’s four seasons are different. There are hurricane season, football season, and crawfish season, when everyone becomes friendlier, so they get invited to the next crawfish boil.
Then there is Mardi Gras season. It officially begins on January 6th, on the twelfth night after Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord. On that day, Louisiana bakeries start baking King Cakes, an oval-shaped French delicacy sprinkled with the three colors of Mardi Gras. Purple signifies “justice,” green for “faith,” and gold for “power.” The tiny plastic baby you find in these cakes represents the manifestation of the Christ-child to the world. We find the baby in the cake just as the Christ-child was pursued by the Three Kings or Maji.
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.” It takes place the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Catholics. The traditions of Mardi Gras go back to medieval France and the preparation of the Great Fast of Lent. Medieval Lent was much stricter than modern Lent. From Ash Wednesday to Easter, Catholics were obliged to eat only one meal a day after sunset. No meat, eggs, butter, cheese, or alcohol were consumed throughout those 40 days. So as not to waste, the faithful would have one last feast before the Great Fast. Even a common peasant could take advantage of the excess food and drink freely given out on Fat Tuesday. In other words, there was a big party!
While modern Lenten fasting is not as arduous as the practices of our medieval brethren, the vestiges of that culture were a part of my upbringing in Louisiana. My family tree can be traced back to the Acadians, the French immigrants who lived in what is now called Nova Scotia. Forcibly exiled by the British Protestants following the French and Indian War, the Acadians became refugees and settled in the swamps and low-lying prairies of Louisiana where the term “Acadians” became “Cajuns.”
In Cajun country, Mardi Gras is a massive event. I thought it was like that everywhere. I did not know schools were open the week of Mardi Gras or that people around the country went to work and did not go to parades. While outsiders might perceive Mardi Gras as a debaucherous exhibit of indulgence and sinful gluttony, most locals stay away from the tourist arena of Bourbon Street to enjoy their local town and neighborhood parade. Eating, drinking, laughing, and dancing in the streets with strangers are all commonplace. I was doing all of this at the last Mardi Gras parade I attended in 2018 on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. And yet, the large group I was with was sure to stop so that a priest could bless the jambalaya before it was served.
This beautiful meshing of feasting and fasting is part of the Catholic ethos and liturgical life. We embrace the joy and gift of life as an essential witness of Christ. Christ’s first miracle, after all, was to make more wine for a party. And yet, He also spent forty days fasting in the desert to focus his mind, heart, and body on the Father. In Lent, we provide witness to that as well.
So, this Tuesday, this Mardi Gras, do not be scared to eat a little extra, and do not skip dessert. We Cajuns are passionate about doing just that; it is part of our religion.
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