The Church calendar may say ordinary time, but the period between Christmas and Lent is anything but ordinary. In many parts of the world, including in Arkansas, Christians celebrate Carnival, which starts every year on Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season, and runs until the beginning of Lent at midnight at the start of Ash Wednesday.
New Orleans-based Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy said Carnival’s roots date back to the early Church. As it gained converts and grew in influence, the Church co-opted some pagan practices into its celebrations. Carnival, which became the first spring festival of the new year, may be one of them.
“The Catholic Church almost licensed Carnival as a period of feasting before the fasting of Lent,” Hardy said. “Former pagans had some crazy ideas about celebrating, and the Church said, ‘You can keep some of this stuff, but we’re going to channel it into Christian events.”
Carnival, which means “farewell to the flesh” in Latin, became a season of feasting before Lent — a roughly six-week season of grief, created at the Council of Nicea in 325, that commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and being tempted by Satan in the desert before beginning his public ministry. Traditionally, during Lent, Catholics were to fast and abstain from drinking alcohol or eating meat or any foods derived from animals, including milk, butter or eggs. Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday, the last day to indulge before the Lenten fast, became the climax of Carnival.
Because Lent is tied to Easter, the length of Carnival changes every year, depending on when holy days are set on the Church’s calendar.
“Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is always 47 (calendar) days before Easter,” Hardy said. “It can be as early as Feb. 3 or as late as March 9, meaning the Carnival season can be as short as 28 days or as long as 63.”
This year Mardi Gras will be celebrated March 1.
Many of Carnival’s traditions, including parades and masquerade balls, developed in medieval Italy, then spread across Europe, and were brought to the Western Hemisphere with the colonization of the Americas. Today, the biggest annual Carnival celebrations are in Venice, Italy, which legend says began in 1162; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which dates to 1641; and New Orleans in 1730.
“We’ve been celebrating it in the fashion that we do presently — with a parade theme, floats, costumes and masks — since 1857,” Hardy said about the Big Easy. “It started out as a single-day celebration with one parade with two floats, and now there are about 60 parades during a two-week period in our metro area.”
Hardy said the biggest misnomer about Carnival is that it is an adults-only event. He said multiple generations of families line the parade routes in the same spot night after night to watch the passing krewes, or parading organizations.
The first annual celebration of Mardi Gras in what is now the United States was held by French settlers in Mobile, Ala., in 1703. In New Orleans and Mobile, krewes are bid-only, not-for-profit social organizations whose members make up the top of society, and their white-tie formal events are some of the most desired invitations. Members of the Rex parade support the Pro Bono Publico Foundation, which has donated more than $9.3 million to schools and charities in the New Orleans area since 2006.
Mardi Gras was popular in Little Rock in the 19th century. The Arkansas Gazette’s Ash Wednesday edition in 1877 included several stories about a Mardi Gras parade and masked revelers in downtown Little Rock. The next day’s paper had articles about the balls held leading up to the event.
With the exception of last year due to COVID, Our Lady of the Holy Souls School in Little Rock holds a Mardi Gras parade annually, where pastor Father John Marconi reigns as king of the celebration.
“It has been the custom for the pastor to be the king, with other students being selected to ride with him, passing out beads and candy,” Father Marconi said. “Since it is outside, if weather permits, we will have it this year. The kids love it. It is a way to have some fun and teach them to get ready for the Lenten season.”
Other parishes, schools and cities host Mardi Gras fundraisers:
All three events are on Saturday, Feb 26.
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