As an orthodox Jew, I’m not really sure how to ask this, but I’ll try to do it in a manner that makes sense. As I understand it, first comes Mardi Gras, then Lent, then holy week, and then Easter. My question has to do with Mardi Gras. At some point, was it a religious celebration of some sort? When did it turn into the spectacle that occurs in New Orleans? Does the church approve of what actually goes on, even tacitly? Do non-Catholics celebrate Mardi Gras? Is there a celebration of Mardis Gras that does not include nudity, drunkenness, and the infamous beads? When did the celebration change to the wilder version that goes on today?
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Carnival (in other countries) is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent. Originally, Mardi Gras was more of a day of feasting (and general playing & dancing) before Ash Wednesday, as Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence. Fried foods were also a very popular food on Mardi Gras because the household were using up their stores of fat (which couldn’t be used during Lent, and would most likely turn rancid by Easter). Most Catholic countries celebrate Mardi Gras/Carnival, two of the most famous being Brazil and Italy.
The tradition of a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans goes pretty much as far back as the French inhabiting the area. Of course, back then, it was masked balls and feasts, it eventually evolved to street dances and parades, and with modern times, came to be the mad revelry we see today.
About the Church, well… drunkeness, gluttony, and lustfulness are still looked at as sins, even on Mardi Gras, but then again, most of the people doing these things in New Orleans aren’t seriously practicing Catholics.
About other churches celebrating Mardi Gras, it would depend–and I don’t know enough about that to comment.
Yes, Mardi Gras is and always has been a religious celebration even if it doesn’t look that way. It never really “turned” into a spectacle because it was always that way. A party is still a party even if it’s a religious party. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t really sanction the activities that go on that I know of, but then they don’t prevent it either. Yes, non-Catholics do celebrate Mardi Gras and I have no explanation of why except they are attracted to the party. I’m of the opinion that if you don’t fast during Lent you shouldn’t celebrate Mardi Gras. There are lots of Protestants at Mardi Gras just to party. There are even some Jews. I have heard of the Krewe of Jieux which is a Krewe that marches in the parade. Yes there are Mardi Gras celebrations that are much tamer than the one in New Orleans. Most of those are scattered about in other parts of Louisiana. It is possible to have a sane quiet Mardi Gras in New Orleans if that’s what you want. I’ve done it myself. The celebration never “changed” to the wilder version. Celebrating Mardi Gras has always run the full spectrum of a casual drink to a full-on Roman orgy.
It’s not so much that the Church condones what happens on Mardi Gras, it’s that they condone it even less, so to speak, on the day after. Yes, by the way, the party on Bourbon Street is absolutely, totally over come midnight Tuesday evening: The New Orleans police will start around immediately making arrests for public drunkeness, or disturbing the peace, or whatever.
As for celebrations not involving high-proof alcohol and cheap plastic beads, do you want to know how my (Midwestern Catholic) family celebrates Fat Tuesday? Donuts. Lots and lots of home-made donuts, and fat, fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Much though I may approve of half-naked women, I think I’ll still take my Gramma’s pancakes, given the choice.