Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras

Yeah! Wooo! Mardi Gras! Gonna go crazy and collect beads! Oh wait, I've never been to or celebrated a New Orleans Mardi Gras. I have been in New Orleans while it was going on though, and let me tell you...they didn't let us anywhere near Bourbon Street. It was a band trip, of course they weren't going to let us go nuts. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday when translated to English from French, is the day where everyone indulges. Traditionally it's when people will eat fatty foods so as to prepare themselves for the Catholic tradition of Lent (where you are supposed to fast), which starts the next day on Ash Wednesday, but the American celebration has led to other indulgences. How did we get to masks, beads, nudity, and fatty foods? Well, let's go back a ways. *Cliche flashback noises and visuals*

According to New Orleans' city website and official sponsor of the colors purple, gold, and green, "the origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of 'Boef Gras,' or fatted calf, followed France to her colonies." In the late 1600's, our old friend, Jean Baptist Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed south of New Orleans and, when the crew realized it was the eve of Mardi Gras, named it "Pointe du Mardi Gras." Bienville also established "Fort Louise de la Louisiane" (now called Mobile) in 1702. The following year, the town celebrated Mardi Gras for the first time in American history. A secret society soon sprouted up in 1710 called the "Boef Gras Society, which paraded through the city every Mardi Gras until 1861. Along with the parade would be a bull, a fake one used at first, that was draped in white, signaling the start of Lent. Bienville later established New Orleans in 1718, with Mardi Gras celebrations becoming a mainstay from the get-go. The governor of New Orleans decided that parades weren't enough for the holiday, and started the tradition of elegant balls being held.

Mystic societies began to form in New Orleans in the mid 1800's, the oldest being the Mistick Krewe of Comus. They cemented the tradition of a formal parade made up of costumed and masked people walking through the New Orleans streets every Mardi Gras. The parades became more and more elaborate over the years, with floats, bands, and street performers. Mardi Gras become synonymous with New Orleans, and vice versa. It wasn't just a French or Catholic thing now, as everyone in the city enjoyed the celebration. The celebrations helped give New Orleans its nickname, "The Big Easy." It has only been in the late 20th century that the whole beads and the showing of breasts became a tradition of sorts, catering to the spring break crowds and voyeurs who can't get enough of Girls Gone Wild videos.

Fat Tuesday is also called Shrove Tuesday, Shrove being the past tense of the word Shrive, which means "to confess." This follows the whole absolution for sins through confession. It follows the tradition of Mardi Gras in being a day where you eat a lot before you can't eat at all. Shrove Tuesday isn't a term that's widely used today, and if it is, it's only by certain countries. In the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, it's referred to as Pancake Day, a day in which the fatty food they eat is pancakes, obviously. Also popular in many European countries is the pancake run, in which people run through the streets with a pancake on a frying pan, flipping it up and catching it as they go. The tradition apparently comes from the story of a woman so busy with making pancakes that when the church bells rang, she ran out to the church with the frying pan with the pancake still in her hand. In Poland, hey traditionally celebrate Shrove Thursday, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Their traditional fatty food of choice is the Packzi (pronounced Poonch-key or Punch-key), a high fat jelly doughnut-like pastry. In America, the day is usually celebrated along with Mardi Gras, in cities where there are a large amount of Polish immigrants, namely Chicago, Buffalo, and the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck. I, myself am from metro Detroit, so Packzi's are something that are well known to me and my fellow south-east Michiganders (or Michiganians if you like). The Spanish and Portuguese celebrate Carnival instead of Mardi Gras, focusing on masquerades and parades. Probably the most famous example of this is the Brazilian Carnival in Rio De Janeiro.

All the foods that are consumed on Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras are typically made from rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar. Thus why most center around pancakes and pastries. Lent lasts for forty days and in that time people refrain from the finer indulgent foods such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Yikes, not sure I could go that long without those three things. In England, it used to be a big tradition to play football (not our version) on Shrove Tuesday, going back to the 12th century.  The tradition died out when the Highway Act of 1835 banned people from playing football on public highways. So, I guess people liked to play games in the road back in the day? Several towns in England have kept up the tradition, though I doubt they play on highways (they do play in blocked off roads though). That would be a European sport that I would watch!

In all, Mardi Gras is just a day where you get to be someone else by dressing up, eat pancakes or pastries, or run around in a parade. It's like having a huge party the day before your parent's are coming back from vacation, and since they never get pizza, you order...like...twenty. So, if you don't happen to be in the vicinity of New Orleans, or other southern towns that celebrate with parades, take some time to eat your heart out, even though if you aren't Catholic, you don't have to stop eating the fun stuff.