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Shipping magnate Michael W. Kearney reigns as Rex, king of Carnival, on Feb. 9, 2016. Rex has paraded on Mardi Gras since 1872. (Chris Price photo) Members of the St. Augustine High School Marching Band play seasonal favorites in the Zulu Parade on Feb. 21, 2012. (Chris Price photo) Cadets from the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., seen here on Feb. 9, 2016, march in the Rex Parade annually. (Chris Price photo) The King’s Jesters, outfitted in Mardi Gras’ traditional colors - purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power, follow Rex on his annual route. (Chris Price photo) The Boeuf Gras, or fatted ox, dates to medieval times and is a symbol of the last meat to be eaten before the beginning of the Lenten fast. It is the fourth float in the Rex Parade annually. (Chris Price photo) Each year, Mardi Gras Indians make and parade in handmade “suits” featuring intricate beading and feathers. (Chris Price photo) Members of the all-female Mystic Krewe of Nyx decorate Carnival-themed purses as their specialty throw. (Chris Price photo) Carnival parades in New Orleans generally run for two weeks before Mardi Gras, with night parades almost daily and day parades on the weekends. (Chris Price photo) Many krewes, or parading organizations, choose a celebrity monarch. In 2010, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees reigned as Bacchaus days after he led the team to their first Super Bowl appearance and victory. (Chris Price photo) Costuming, often time elaborately, is an important Carnival tradition. This couple dressed as Henry VIII and one of his wives for Mardi Gras 2012. (Chris Price photo) Our Lady of the Holy Souls Junior High Religion Teacher and Class of 1991 alumnae Lynn Milton serves as the queen of the school’s Mardi Gras parade in this file photo from March 5, 2019. (Aprille Hanson Spivey photo)

Carnival a Church tradition dating back to Middle Ages

Term means “farewell to the flesh” in Latin, has became a season of feasting before Lent

Published: February 7, 2022      
Aprille Hanson Spivey photo
Our Lady of the Holy Souls Junior High Religion Teacher and Class of 1991 alumnae Lynn Milton serves as the queen of the school’s Mardi Gras parade in this file photo from March 5, 2019.

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.

“Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is always 47 (calendar) days before Easter. 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.”

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:

  • St. Joseph School in Paris is hosting a Mardi Gras Casino Night and Silent Auction fundraiser at the First National Bank Community Center
  • Immaculate Conception Church in  North Little Rock will have a CYM Mardi Gras Night. 
  • Holy Rosary School in Stuttgart is holding an adults-only Mardi Gras Party and Fundraiser. 

All three events are on Saturday, Feb 26.

  • In northwest Arkansas, Eureka Springs will celebrate Carnival with multiple events including a bedazzled Mardi Gras Tree downtown, a night parade Feb. 19 at 6 p.m., and a day parade on Feb. 26 at 2 p.m.
  • In Fayetteville, the Parade of Fools will celebrate their 29th year beginning at 2 p.m. Feb. 26.
  • While the popularity of Mardi Gras celebrations in Little Rock ceased in the 20th century, the SoMardi Gras parade has rolled on South Main Street in Little Rock since 2010. Themed “Popstars and Pirates,” the parade is scheduled to roll at noon Feb. 26, starting at the intersection of 24th and Main.

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