Christmas, the Epiphany and the beginning of the Mardi Gras season

By Father Ted Dziak, S.J.

We celebrate Christmas in different ways – usually based on our own family traditions or nationality or even geographical location.  Whenever I think of my youth, I remember gathering around the dinner table at my uncle’s home every year with the extended family, sharing presents and a grand macaroni / chickpea meal along with clams and oysters.  It is these warm Christmas memories that fill the heart.

Having lived in Louisiana these past twelve years, I must admit New Orleans celebrates Christmas in grand style.  From the annual caroling in Jackson Square attended by thousands to the massive holiday lights spectacular in City Park to the decorated balconies of the French Quarter, the holidays are uniquely New Orleanian – even the streetcars get into the season with decorations and lights.

As Christmas passes, there is usually a quiet period once the feast of the Epiphany arrives and Christmas decorations are taken down.  But not here in New Orleans – the decorations just change color from red & green to purple, gold and green.   As any New Orleanian can tell you, January 6 kicks off Mardi Gras season (aka Carnival).

Before I came here to live, despite hearing stories, I never realized how much Mardi Gras takes over the city for weeks, even months. While Mardi Gras technically is only ‘Fat Tuesday’ (the day before Ash Wednesday), the celebrations start quietly here in southern Louisiana, with king cakes appearing almost immediately along with the masked balls and even a few parades.  It then just builds to the crescendo of day to night celebrations with parties, parades, beads and throws and yes, more king cakes. 

There is not a school in New Orleans that would be able to hold classes those few days before Ash Wednesday.  Loyola, along with virtually every other school in the city, does its noble duty by closing all week – and even Iggy wears beads.  Streetcars stop, and the curbs and neutral ground become the place where Mardi Gras roars its celebratory head.  Even the trees along parade routes wear their beads, involuntarily of course.

Mardi Gras gets so dominant, I think there are many who forget its religious significance and even origins.  Liturgically, Mardi Gras marks the last day of ordinary time before the start of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance.  Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the last day for eating those rich foods before the fasting discipline of Lent begins. 

But Mardi Gras is definitely more than one Tuesday down here in the deep south!  As a person of faith, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we take the Carnival celebrations to the extreme?  Well, maybe that thought is just a bit of the Catholic guilt appearing, and almost heresy here.  For what would our city be without this grand celebration?

Mardi Gras does have a fascinating history, and while it did not originate in New Orleans, it was close.  On March 3, 1699, the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville camped about 60 miles down river from the future site of New Orleans.  Since it was Fat Tuesday back in France, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and held a small celebration (according to the History Channel site [www.history.com]).  A few years later, French soldiers and settlers celebrated this feast with masks in the newly founded city of Mobile, and this became the first Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S.   Ok, I will give credit to Mobile for being the first, but nothing compares to New Orleans. 

Ignatius always tells us to find God in all things, and in the Spiritual Exercises, to always seek the best possible interpretation.  So I’m using a bit of Ignatian thinking to ask our readers to try to find God during Carnival – to use the Mardi Gras season as a time of joy and happiness, fellowship and companionship, celebration and pure fun.  Jesus had a close community of friends and I bet he even had great fun with his friends (and his mother) at that wedding at Cana.  He smiled a lot as well – he loved life and everyone in it.  Just like we all do in New Orleans!

As we near the Epiphany (and put away the Christmas decorations and pull out the king cake), let us always see God in all things and enjoy the ordinary weeks of our liturgical season, also known as Carnival.  Then, looking ahead a couple of months, as the bells toll at midnight on Mardi Gras day and the celebrations end, let us start the season of Lent, fully refreshed and ready.  God will be smiling with us. 

So much to look forward to in the beginning of the new calendar year.


 Father Ted Dziak, S.J. is the Vice-President for Mission and Identity and also serves as the University Chaplain.  He has been at Loyola since 2006.



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