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Mardi Gras In the New World

It was the year 1699 when a Frenchman by the imposing name of Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, sailed his ship up the mouth of the Mississippi River and landed at a spot near the future site of the city of New Orleans. Oddly enough, he called this landing Mardi Gras Point. From this inauspicious beginning, the name Mardi Gras took on a life of its own, blending French traditions with New World customs and church holy days and rituals that, in time, rolled themselves together into this wonderful celebrations we call “Mardi Gras.”

As anyone who knows can tell you, the French have the enviable capacity to place worldly pleasures side by side with religious commitments without, in most cases, doing undue harm to either. And so, the French brought to our shores their tradition of feasting and merry making before the commencement of the sobering holy season of Lent. This French tradition found a ready climate where it could grow and expand in the new land.

In time, the customs of this new land attached themselves to this “Mardi Gras.” We can count so many innovations that became fixed features of this celebration: among these are carnival krewes, carnival balls, and neighborhood marching groups, parades with floats and marching bands, and people throwing beads and trinkets from passing floats.

Then, there are the church rituals and holy days which form the back-drop for the Mardi Gras season. First, there is the Feast of the Epiphany which is the coming of the three kings to worship the Christ-Child. This feast day is later followed by Ash Wednesday. It is between these two holy days that the Carnival Season occurs—beginning with King’s Day and ending with Mardi gras (or Fat Tuesday in French). The following day, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the 47 days of fasting before Easter.

The holiday of Mardi Gras has roots stretching back some 300 years to 1699 when the French arrived. However, what we witness now is as American as Apple Pie. This celebration belongs to us now. We see it celebrated in places like Mobile, New Orleans, all along theMississippi Gulf Coast, in the south Louisiana Cajun Country, and in our own Galveston. It is a unique part of the American landscape. We thank the French, but now we can call Mardi Gras our own. We have stamped it in such a way over the years that it belongs to us.

In closing this little essay, the thought just occured to me ……..do  you think that perhaps as Bienville sailed pass the site of that future New Orleans Town, a faint breeze could have whispered ever so softly in his ear……. “Throw me something, Mister” ……Hmm, I wonder…………