Friday, February 5, 2010

Article explaining Mardi Gras, THROW ME SOMETHING MISTER ! (Cooper)

Mardi Gras, a Family Celebration

"A King's History of Mardi Gras"

By David J. Cooper
Mobile Carnival Association

I am asked a lot about Mardi Gras and its roots. I never seem to have it written down so I thought I would write down my understanding of the history of Mobile's Mardi Gras, which is the greatest free show on earth. There is not another celebration in Mobile that comes close to Mardi Gras.

On Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday) the carnival season climaxes with floats and costumes while people of all ages line the streets to watch the parades pass by. Everyone enjoys the day in their own way. People scramble for "throws," dance to the marching bands, and enjoy a good time with family and friends. Why do these grownups dress in costume, climb on floats, and throw trinkets and candy to the crowd? Well, it all started a long time ago.

More than 5000 years ago in Greece there was a pagan festival. The winters were bleak and life was difficult. Just to live through the winter was a real feat. Even a simple medical problem could and often would turn into a major catastrophe during the winter months. People who survived the deadly winter had a lot to be thankful for and looked forward to spring with much anticipation. The spring festival was to thank the gods for their survival.

The Greeks sacrificed a goat and used its blood to sprinkle in the fields to pay homage to the earth for allowing them to live through the harsh winter and produce vegetation in the spring for their future survival. This all took place in the Arcadian Hills of Greece. The pagan priest would flog the revelers with a whip made from the skin of the goat being eaten by all. Another version of this celebration has the revelers throwing flour (a symbol of life) upon the fields along with the goat's blood to petition the gods for better crops. The pagan festival grew into a countrywide celebration.

When the Roman Legions conquered the Greeks they allowed the Greeks to keep their celebration and actually joined in, thus making it bigger and better. The Roman Army took this celebration with them when they returned home and incorporated chariot races, gladiators and wild parties. The Romans called this celebration Lupercailis. The Roman version of the celebration was a little different as they furnished whips to all the participants. The participants whipped each other to purify themselves of sin, and pandemonium was the order of the day. The Romans started the practice of masking and killed the fattened ox (boeuf gras) to commemorate the occasion. A crown of gold leaves and bouquets of flowers adorned the fattened ox. The ox was led over a grating and subsequently killed with a consecrated spear.

Participants who wished to become priests were allowed to stand under the grating and let the warm blood flow over them to purify and to wash away their sins. When Christianity was born it had very little influence in regard to stamping out this pagan festival. This festival (Lupercailis) grew to last thirty days. The Roman "festival of joy" was actually celebrated on March 25th; on this day, most of the laws of the land were abandoned. The Romans were allowed to do almost anything. There was no sin or vice too outlandish. Robbery, rape, rioting and even murder were ignored on this day in the name of this pagan celebration. Costumes were elaborate and usually used to cover up such despicable behavior. This celebration degenerated into the lowest depths that man could sink and still survive.

Christianity began to gain momentum over a period of hundreds of years in spite of overwhelming obstacles. The church leaders had an impossible task to convert the Roman multitudes while they still practiced this pagan celebration which appealed to so many. Even the discussion of fasting, prayer, self denial and the love of God was very difficult competition against this wild pagan celebration. The church decided to change its strategy and adopt a parallel celebration to coincide with the pagan celebration in hopes that they would eventually attract the multitudes to the Christian version of this celebration of spring.

At a church conference in Nicaea (in Asia Minor) in 325 AD, a date for Easter Sunday was permanently fixed. The church's greatest feast day could now be celebrated simultaneously throughout the world. The Nicaean Creed, as it was officially designated, set Easter as the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon. This would give moonlight to the pilgrims who traveled so far to the Easter festival. Ash Wednesday would begin the six weeks of Lent; it was also determined at this time.

Thus, the calculated strategy to replace the pagan orgies with a church blessed celebration was created and was originally called Carnelevare (farewell to flesh). Over many hundreds of years the name changed slightly - Carnevela Men, Carneleval, Carnelevarium and Carnevale. These words were used to describe the pre-Lenten celebration. In Italy the word Carnivale led to our use of the word Carnival. The Carnival celebration allowed Christians to have a good time before the forty days (excluding Sundays) of Lent. At Lent, self-denial and fasting would be observed to honor Christ for forty days.

I've always heard that another more practical reason for this church sanctioned festival was to allow the people to eat all the foods which could not be eaten during Lent. In fact, I don't believe they were allowed to keep these types of foods in their homes during Lent. These types of food were: meat, butter, milk, cheese, eggs and any kind of fat.

The Christian church was becoming stronger and stronger. Along with the Christian church, Carnival became popular through Christianity and spread to all parts of the world. Rich tempting food, music, dancing and general good times were trademarks of this worldwide celebration. In Russia and other Slovak countries the period before Lent was called Sedmicasyrnaja, or in other words "butter week." In Poland it was called Tlusle Dni (or Fats Days). In France the day before Lent was called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).

I have been asked so many times about the roots of Mobile's Mardi Gras. In the interest of time I always just go back to the French celebration of Mardi Gras. A more detailed look shows that Mobile's Mardi Gras' roots reach back better than 5000 years to Greece, Rome and later the Christian church. The Greeks originated the celebration and had the idea of using throws. The Romans added the costuming and masking, and focused on the fattened ox. When the Christian church introduced our form of Carnival, it began to resemble what we today call Mardi Gras. The French gave us the name and this is what we use for our celebration on Fat Tuesday. Today, Mobilians are continuing to add their own ideas to those introduced to us over the 5000 year period. In the early days of Mobile's Mardi Gras, flour was thrown in the ancient Greek tradition. It was later mimicked by throwing confetti (when it ended up in the eyes and mouths of parade-goers the Mobile City Police outlawed this tradition in the interest of safety).

Toy whips were thrown by maskers and sold by street vendors for many years symbolizing the Greek and Roman influence; however, most Mobilians never knew of their significance. You rarely ever see these types of toys in evidence today.

When Iberville and Bienville founded Mobile and set up a colony at 27 mile bluff in 1702, the French soldiers who occupied the fort celebrated Mardi Gras at the appropriate time. It has been part of Mobile's traditional history ever since that day. Even the Spanish and later the English observed the festival approaching Lent throughout Mobile's history. Mobile still uses this time to signify the birth of spring. While some segments of the Christian Church deny any connection with this celebration, the fact is the early Christian Church created this celebration to help solidify the Christian movement throughout the world. Today, in Mobile, we focus on the positive aspects of this celebration of spring which was created by the Christian Church in 325 A.D. Our version of Mardi Gras concentrates on the wholesome family type atmosphere produced by street parades and public socializing. This is punctuated by individual groups of citizens joining together to celebrate the season with balls, receptions and pageantry.

A season of merriment starting on January 6th and ending the day before Ash Wednesday. This Tuesday is called Mardi Gras Day. (Carnival translated means "farewell to flesh.")

A day of celebration climaxing the Carnival season. (Mardi Gras translated means "Fat Tuesday.")

B.C. & D.C
Mobile has but two seasons: B.C. (before Carnival) when everyone is getting ready for the big event; and D.C. (during Carnival), when the citizenry is concerned with nothing whatsoever besides celebrating it.

It has been said that the people of Mobile love Carnival, Mardi Gras, and parades to the extreme that if a catastrophe left only two survivors in Mobile, on the next Mardi Gras one would be costumed and in the street, beating a drum and carrying a banner; the other would be standing aside in costume, hollering "Throw me something mister!!"

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