Carnival season carries rich religious history

Brendan Lyman, Views Editor

The following is an opinion piece, and does not reflect the views of the Tulane Hullabaloo.

By now, everyone in the city of New Orleans is aware that Carnival Season is well underway, and Mardi Gras is almost here. Despite the knowledge that the season is here, the knowledge of the mostly Catholic origins and the importance of the holiday have not been as well recognized. 

To truly understand, appreciate and celebrate Mardi Gras, it is necessary to acknowledge the importance that religion has played in the holiday’s traditions, and the historical impact it has had on New Orleans.

From the earliest record, Carnival Season, of which Mardi Gras is the pinnacle, is a product of the integration of pagan customs into Catholicism, which is the root of many Christian holidays. As the Catholic Church spread through Europe, native celebrations, such as the Celtic Samhain and Italian Bacchanalia, gave birth to the timing of All Saint’s Day, Halloween, Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras. When France, Italy, Spain and Portugal began to colonize the “New World,” their religion and customs came along with their rule. 

In the case of New Orleans and Carnival, the origins came directly from the French Catholic tradition. Since at least the Middle Ages, the French had celebrated the season leading up to Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. In Christianity, Lent is a season of repentance and sacrifice. The word “Carnival” is considered to be directly derived from the Latin phrase “farewell to meat,” which refers to abstinence from meat during Lent in Catholicism. For French Catholics, Carnival was the time to celebrate and sin before repenting.  

The “Twelfth Night,” which takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany and officially marks the beginning of Carnival season, is a holiday celebrated by Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox Christians and members of other branches of Christianity. The baby found in King Cake, which traditionally is only made during Carnival, has long been recognized to symbolize the baby Jesus.

Within 20 years of its founding in 1718, New Orleans openly celebrated Carnival, and by 1740 elegant balls had begun to mark Mardi Gras. By 1830, foot parades on the streets of the city had begun. 

In 1856, six former residents of Mobile, Alabama, who were Anglican, founded the first Krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus. The Krewe would begin many of the present-day traditions for Carnival including float parades, secretive krewe organizations and the use of flambeaux. Following the visit of the Russian Grand Duke in 1872, a “king” of Mardi Gras, Rex, was invented. The Rex Organization established green, gold and purple as Carnival’s official colors, in honor of the Grand Duke’s family colors. 

Despite its popularity and its prominence in shaping New Orleans’ identities, Carnival and Mardi Gras have faced major challenges in history. Under Spanish rule, masking and many public Mardi Gras celebrations were banned. The ban continued under American rule until 1827, but by then much of the French-Creole public tradition had been greatly damaged.

In 1991, the New Orleans City Council attempted to end one of the longest running and arguably worst Mardi Gras traditions: segregation. Many locals saw the ordinance as a threat to both the tradition and future of Mardi Gras. Though the ordinance would eventually be declared unconstitutional, 19th Century Krewes like Comus and Momus have not paraded since in protest of the ordinance.

As Tulane students, the majority of us come from outside the region where Mardi Gras has been traditionally celebrated. Further, many come from outside the Christian branches that celebrate the holiday and mark the season of Lent. While those facts should not deter people from reveling in the holiday, failure to acknowledge the historical and religious importance of the holiday can lead to appropriation and disrespect to the very people who are responsible for the celebrations we adore.

Brendan Lyman is a senior at Newcomb-Tulane College. He can be reached at b[email protected]