As the years have progressed, the moral turpitude of celebrating this "carnival" - this big blast before penance time - has diminished. Actually Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" in French and was originally meant for a day of feasting before the day and season of fasting. Actually, it was a time when folks in Europe came together much in the manner Americans do for Thanksgiving - with wine, food and music to encourage each other to be able to keep the Lenten resolutions they had been planning during the week before Lent. It was a time when the French began on the previous Thursday - thus the term "Jeudi Gras" - Fat Thursday in which they began to feast while they prepared for Lent. Many times it dealt with excess of crops and it was necessary for them to consume much of the food stored up over the winter so that it didn't go bad or be fodder for rats and other pestilences, especially wheat. Thus the French devoted the entire week before Lent in preparation by "finishing off that which would not keep." The Germans had a similar ritual which they called "Fetter Donnerstag". In England the Brits wolfed down eggs by the bushels to polish off the eggs and dair products that would spoil over time. Out of this came the recipe for what we know today as pancakes. What eggs were left over were buried in cold ground to keep for the forty days but not much longer. Thus the tradition of eggs at Easter and the ultimate evolution of the "Easter Bunny" makes sense. Another reason for eating these foods in great quantities the week before Lent began were the ecclesiastical restrictions on meat and fatty foods that were inappropriate for Lent. Back in those days people heeded the strict fast the Church called for, they would garb themselves in true sackcloth and cover their foreheads, arms, legs and the rest of their body with ashes as a reminder of who they were and in reparation for their sins. But before they donned these penitent robes, it was time for one last fling. Unfortunately, in southern climes of France, Spain, Italy and the New World the weather was conducive to shedding many garments - too often too many articles of clothing - causing increased inhibitions that were thrown to the winds. Too often the rationale was used that one could sin today and confess tomorrow. This thinking has sadly carried on through today. To rationalize this or masquerade it they donned masks and costumes, staging plays that spilled out into the streets as people wrote their own scripts - with plots that evolved around the seven deadly sins.
To counter this, Holy Mother Church sought to remind the faithful of the reasons for Lent and proper preparation meant coming together in prayer not for decadence. Priests formed "Forty Hour Prayer" cenacles to both prepare for Lent and to make early reparation for the debauchery in which others were participating. It became so bad in the eighteenth century in Italy that Pope Benedict XIV issued a plenary indulgence for those who participated in Exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament held for three days during the Mardi Gras celebration. As we all know today in New Orleans, the carnival grows bigger and bawdier every year as the "Big Easy" makes it easier to fall into the grave temptation of sin. The carnival itself has taken on a satanic theme with the hideous looking antagonizers dressed to scare along with the similarly-grotesque Krewes crew. To their credit many parishes in the parishes of the city and surrounding areas are offering Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to counter the carnal carnival underway on and around Bourbon Street.
Another custom, much more calm and sedate, but a thrill for the youngsters is to find the "Baby Jesus" inside one of the "King cakes" a purple, orange and green conglomeration of dough and sweets that taste very much like hot-crossed buns, popular on Passion Sunday. It is always fitting that the children look for Jesus, even in a cake, but their parents need to educate them and themselves that they don't have to claw through the kneaded matter to find Jesus; all they have to do is need Him and look for Him in the nearest Tabernacle. He's there and so lonesome while everyone else parties. So as we acknowledge Mardi Gras, let's all get a headstart on tomorrow by showing restraint in pouring down one more and" remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." If we can remember that, we won't have to dust off the ashes of regret! Then it will be easier to throw away the garish and seductive carnival beads and embrace the beads of true love, hope and Mercy as Our Lady has promised - the Rosary! That's the real skinny on Fat Tuesday!