The wild celebration of Mardi Gras actually has its roots in Lent! Lent is a time when Catholics are encouraged to fast and vow to abstain from some of their more “sinful” habits. Mardi Gras leads up to giving up these indulgences during Lent. During “carnival,” there are food and drink delights, as well as decadent behaviors. In a recent visit to New Orleans, the most infamous of the United States cities to celebrate this event, I spoke with some locals about the history around it and found that it became popular not only for its spiritual process, but also based on the historically high mortality rate!
New Orleans is below sea level (as seen during Katrina), and the marshy swamplands carried vermin and mosquitoes that brought sickness and death to such a high mortality rate that the city hid it from the world. In order to keep people there spending money locally, and to keep ships coming into the docks on the Mississippi, the elected officials and the newspapers kept quiet about the scarlet fever, whooping cough, smallpox and diphtheria outbreaks (just to name a few)! Those who couldn’t afford to go off to Lake Ponchatrain or other areas away from the city in “fever season” were left to deal with the heavy losses of death that surrounded them daily.
So the residents of New Orleans embraced life! This celebration and the general attitude of the Bourbon Street regulars (to this day!), is to live life to the fullest, as you just never know when death would come for you. They celebrated each funeral with a parade and a band, hankies waving in the air to celebrate that they were still alive! This “attitude of gratitude” for each day of life itself is still very present in this city.
In the United States, Fat Tuesday (“Mardi Gras” is the French term) was embraced on this format as much, if not more, than as the celebration before Lent. It is celebrated in most cities to some degree, more often for the three-day weekend before Lent. Seattle is especially famous for the musical aspects of their carnival. Los Angeles has several different types of celebrations. If you go to Rio de Janeiro, you will see the most amazing parades and costumes, and culturally accurate dancing, foods and drink. Yet you can also find a celebration in Sydney, Australia, and even Sweden!
Think about doing your own celebration of life this year—either join in one in your community or create your own. If we embrace life fully each day, each day becomes more powerful, more real. Tell your loved ones how precious they are to you, create a wonderful dinner for yourself, celebrate that today you are alive! Blessings to you!