Festivities, religion bring holiday into sharp focus

Daphne Yu

Parade shines through any weather: the 2012 parade survived in Baton Rouge after a day of stormy weather. Photo by Missy Wheeler
Food, colorful clothing and parades are all the ingredients of the annual Mardi Gras celebrations. Like many western holidays, the celebration is one whose history stems from religion. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” in the Catholic religion is the day that precedes Ash Wednesday, signaling the beginning of Lent.
Because Lent originates from the idea of fasting for 40 days to honor Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert while Satan tempted hi, Fat Tuesday is the last day before Easter Sunday when people can eat without reserve.
“I usually give something up for lent and make sacrifices,” senior Emily Smith said. “I normally make sure to have whatever I am giving up on Fat Tuesday.”
In the past Smith, who considers herself a devout Catholic, has forgone gum, chocolate, TV and Facebook, to name a few things.  Smith said she celebrates Mardi Gras to the fullest because the meaning of Lent and the history behind it holds great significance to her and her religion.
“The Catholic churches in Columbia all work together and host a Fat Saturday party for the adults,” Smith said. “Sometimes at youth group, we will celebrate Mardi Gras. For example, sophomore year, we had a dance. If we celebrate as a group, we typically eat King Cake or make masks.”
While Smith honors the holiday mainly because of her religion, Missy Wheeler, Rock Bridge class of 2011 and a freshman at Louisiana State University this year, celebrates the holiday for more than one reason. In addition to being Catholic, Wheeler’s family also has deep roots in Louisiana, where both of her parents grew up.
“Because Louisiana was important to my family, … I fell in love with the culture when I visited it,” Wheeler said. “Anything representing the state came to hold importance to me, especially gifts from my dad.”
Her father, who would attend the Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana when Wheeler was younger, brought back beads, plastic coins and masks as memorabilia for his daughters. To keep up the spirit in Columbia, she made sure to don an LSU shirt and an average of ten necklaces to school, drawing attention from her peers left and right, who often asked to borrow her necklaces. At home, Wheeler’s family would eat the classic Cajun foods, including gumbo, jambalaya or red beans and rice.
This year, for a change, Wheeler is completely immersed in the spirit, where the LSU campus is decorated in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green, which stand for justice, power and faith.
“The main difference between Mardi Gras at Rock Bridge versus LSU is that I’m completely surrounded by the holiday rather than being the only one who remembered there’s an important day before Ash Wednesday,” Wheeler said. “Mardi Gras in high school for me was simply talking about the Cajuns or making a poster in French. At LSU, the majority of students are from Louisiana, and most have experienced Mardi Gras in their hometowns, if not New Orleans.”
While students in Columbia did not have school yesterday because of President’s day, most schools, public or private, along with LSU, are out for “Lundi Gras,” Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, Wheeler said. Parades, starting two weekends before the festival, dominate the streets of Louisiana, such as Bacchus in New Orleans and Spanish Town in Baton Rouge.
In addition to parades, bountiful feasts and partying are the norms these days, with the iconic King Cake leading the way. At Rock Bridge, the celebrations are low-key because there are no unified school celebrations. Some students celebrate in their French classes and learn about the differences between the American and French styles of the holiday.
“I’m looking forward to the King Cake,” sophomore Ashley Shahan, whose French class has their Mardi Gras party this morning, said. “New Orleans says getting the baby in the cake is good and you will be king or queen for a day. But in France, the person would be treated like a king or queen for a year, but then they would have to sacrifice their life for a good year.”
Of the few differences between the American and French Mardi Gras, the biggest is the King Cake. The gateau – meaning ‘cake’ in French – in France is usually consumed on a different holiday from Mardi Gras, French foreign exchange student, Joseph de Bony, said. For them, the cake is reserved for Jan. 6 – Epiphany. Instead, the most important food on Mardi Gras in France is the crepe – a thin pancake-like dessert.
“The crepe is really the tradition of Mardi Gras,” de Bony said. “Everybody, every school in France, have crepe for lunch. It represents everything. It represents the sun; it represents Christ. There’s no Mardi Gras without crepe.”
In addition to celebrating with the delicious dish, everyone dress crazily in France for Mardi Gras. People dress in whatever they want, not just in purple, green or gold, de Bony said. Unlike students in Louisiana, the French still attend school on Mardi Gras, but they hold parades throughout the school that day.
Wheeler spent the weekend immersed in Cajun food and revelries. Her Mardi Gras experience this year is a time to discover the authentic, Louisianan way of honoring the holiday. However, whether it’s her father bringing back trinkets from parades, her family sending her squished – but still delicious – King Cake from the South or celebrating, there’s one thing that stays the same.
Mardi Gras, Wheeler said, is “a time for family and a celebration of the splendors of what life has to offer.”
Learn how Career Center brought the taste of New Orleans to RBHS here.
By Daphne Yu