March 19-30, 2017
We stopped by a visitor’s center in Biloxi, Alabama, and found a large display of Mardi Gras articles. Little did I know the extent of the influence this celebration had throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Southern children look forward to the entire week off of school for Mardi Gras break while the northern children may never have even heard about this festival. I was familiar with the Catholic’s Ash Wednesday and Lent that followed from my childhood years, but was unaware of how widespread the Mardi Gras festival was down south.
For fellow northerners, I’ll quickly fill in some of the main ideas surrounding this time. Even though the first Mardi Gras festival in America was in Mobile, Alabama, New Orleans is now the most known for its celebration. The origin of the observance extends back hundreds of years to the early church and perhaps with a blending of ancient spring pagan festivals. Nowadays, catholic people use the time of Lent to fast, repent of their sinful ways in preparation and reflection of what Jesus dying on the cross for their wrong-doings before the Easter celebration. However, this group desired to have one last celebration that “allowed” them to sin before they had to repent and stop on Ash Wednesday. This became known as “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras.
Okay, I need to take a timeout to share what bothered me about Mardi Gras. As a follower of Jesus, it is important to take time to identify my sins and then stop doing them permanently to become more like Jesus. However, I had trouble with the Mardi Gras celebration that promoted sinning “one last time”. A large part of truly repenting was being sorry for what you did, and trying not do it any more. If you celebrate and participate in the sinful activity the night before with the intention of “repenting”, I questioned the supposed remorseful nature. That person lightly esteems what Jesus did for them. The Bible explains the faulty thinking in Romans 6. I’ll highlight a only a couple verses. Verses 1-2 say, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Likewise, verses 15 and 21 also state, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!….Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.”
Now back to what I learned about this culture. This Mardi Gras celebration eventually extended itself to become a season starting in January lasting through the end of February. Parades became a main focus of this time. We found different Krewes, or organizations of people, would sponsor a parade. Countless parades take place during this time. In one weekend, we counted over five parades in just our area alone. I even ran across a Mardi Gras parade for Pre-K children who were bussed to a Walmart for its sponsored parade within the store.
Through different conversations with locals, we discovered people marked their spot along the parade route by parking their car there at least the night before. It is common to have to walk over a mile to reach the parade route if you traveled by car. A nearby church charged $40 for some to park in their parking lot to avoid the trek. We were warned to only attend the daytime parades as the ones toward evening easily turn violent with muggings, stabbings and shootings from the gangs. Nearby businesses were also allowed to sell alcoholic beverages for people to drive off with, which only added to the dysfunctional mix.
During the parades, many different items may be thrown. A neighbor told of moon pies, candy, cold foods, and toys at the children’s parades. However, beads and coconuts were the coveted items. In the past, the beads had a special symbolism to them. The gold beads represented power, green bead were for faith, and the purple beads meant justice. If a bystander’s character showed any of these three attributes, a person from a float would give them beads that corresponded. Later on, the Zulu Krewe started handing out coconuts for those who would do something for them. However, people took this too far and now women are manipulated into lifting their shirts for the prize. This is frowned down upon generally, however, it still occurs in certain areas. This was one “education” I did not feel my boys needed to experience.
In addition to the parades, I heard of something called “King Cake”. The local people told how this cake was only available during the Mardi Gras season. Since I enjoy trying most local foods, I was naturally curious. After some researching on the internet, I figured out the King Cake is a yeast cake that reminded me of a cinnamon roll. Traditionally, it contained a pecan filling and formed into circle like a bundt cake. After it was baked, it was decorated with green, yellow, and purple sugars or icing. What made the cake special was the plastic baby or item placed inside the cake after it was baked. Whoever received the piece of cake with the item in it was then obligated to be the host of the next Mardi Gras party, so the cycle of partying continued.
The more I learned about the festival that is so intertwined into the southern culture, the more I did not feel comfortable participating in it. As a parent I felt I needed to be careful to the message I would pass on to my children about Mardi Gras. Some people may blindly participate and unknowingly promote a calloused mindset toward sin. Couple that with the dangerous mindset of the party-goers, I decided that no parade or amount of beads was worth it. But even though we did not intentionally time our travels to be right in the middle of Mardi Gras festivities, it found us and we had a valuable cultural experience.
Until we meet again,