There are a downsides to having been raised vaguely Protestant and residing in sometimes inhospitable northern climes. Perhaps the biggest is regarding with wistful envy the liberating extravagance of Carnival and Mardi Gras. It is the un-religious holiday—a day of wallowing in the ways of the flesh and merry making before getting down to the serious and unpleasant tasks of the proper piety of Lent.
Catholics seem to know how to take advantage of the opportunity, especially in warm places where the streets beckon—New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro most famously. But folks from countries where Romance languages are spoken can find ways to celebrate even in icy Quebec City.
The idea is simple. Finnish up the Christmas season on the Feast of the Epiphany, the fixed day of January 11, and then coast down the hill of Ordinary Time until Ash Wednesday kicks off of Lent, which by the lunar calendar falls anywhere from February to March, gathering speed all the while. It is the “dead of winter.” Even in Mediterranean countries it was dark and often cold. Folks stayed inside more, got on each others’ nerves. But by Fat Tuesday, the sap was running and Spring seemed just over the horizon. Perfect for one last opportunity to bust loose before breaking out the sack cloth and ashes.
Protestants, particularly Calvinists, their decedents, and those who stood close enough by to be infected, took a dim view of the whole process. More Papist/pagan nonsense to them. A good Calvinist existed in a state of perpetual Lent. The experience of any sensual pleasure was regarded as a sinful distraction from contemplation of the awesome majesty of God and our totally undeserving souls. It was for good reason that Puritanism has been described as the nagging suspicion that somewhere, somehow, somebody is having a good time.
England, I am told, once celebrated Carnival—a cultural gift of the Norman French aristocracy. Cromwell and his boys pretty much wiped that out at the point of the sword. Even when Kings remounted the Throne and the Anglican Church regained the upper hand, the old traditions fell away. Instead they shrank the celebration down to something called Shrove Tuesday, which is celebrated mostly by making and eating pancakes. Now I bow to no man in my affection for the flapjack or griddle cake, but even a high pile drenched in butter and real maple syrup is a poor substitute for dancing semi-naked in the streets. They passed this tradition on to all of the former pink spots on the globe where the Empire once ruled and to all of the Protestant sects derived from Anglicanism and Calvinism.
Of course, not all Catholics party with absolute abandon. Those from northern and eastern Europe either never celebrated or toned down Carnival. The Poles celebrate with Pączki Day (pronounced pŭtch-kē). In the old country it was held on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but in the immigrant communities of North America it is held on Fat Tuesday. Folks line up at bakeries at the crack of dawn to purchase pączkis, a kind of jelly doughnut made only once a year. This is a much bigger deal than it sounds.
In Germany, the Baltic states, and Scandinavian Fat Tuesday is likewise celebrated with special local pastries meant to use up the supply of sugar and lard before the Lenten fast.
Tonight the biggest and most honored Krews will be conducting their parades in New Orleans. Down there, they take Mardi Gras seriously and have stretched it to the whole season between the Epiphany and Lent. Various parades have been winding down the streets of different neighborhoods for weeks, each followed by its own Ball. The streets of the French Quarter will be crowded. Many revelers will be drunken northerners and Calvinist escapees. They will party next to the locals, drinking copiously, begging for beads cast from the parade floats, and eying the pretty young girls flashing their tits. Everyone will forget that Rick Santorum or the Catholic Bishops exist.
And I wish I was with them. It’s been far too long since I reveled in sin and degradation.
Meanwhile my Social Justice Committee of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry will dutifully meet to do its earnest work. We are, after all, the stepchildren of those old Massachusetts Puritans. As Chair it is customary for me to open the proceedings with a reflection. Usually it’s a reading I snatch from the internet. But tonight, I will read them this. Sitting through my poetry ought to be hair shirt enough for any Puritan.
A Prayer for a Committee Meeting on Mardi Gras
March 4, 2014
Drudges like us throw on our heavy coats
and slog through the still arctic night
to rendezvous around a table
for the earnest business of making the world
a kinder place
or so we tell ourselves.
We pass the hours elbow deep
in the common dishwater
of routine and rote,
duty and debate
and adjourn the world not moved
a centimeter from its calamitous orbit.
But tonight in the Big Easy,
down in Rio or far off Nice,
any of the warm places
where the evening pulses expectantly,
they don masks and dance heedless
in the streets.
In timeless Carnival
the rich and poor,
Black and White,
queer and straight
alien and citizen
revel together in absolute equality.
In the common streets
justice rolls down like bons temps
the enemy comity,
is tucked away in a samba dancer’s thong.
For this one night there is Joy
and the old world dances to a coronet.