Francine Paino AK F. Della Notte
Mardi Gras! The wild celebrations and not-so-good behaviors that have come to be associated with Fat Tuesday take place on the last day before the solemn period of Lent begins for Christians around the world.
In the fourth century, when Christianity became recognized in Rome, church leaders incorporated the ingrained pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia, an ancient festival held every year on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility. The church fathers thought it an easier task to incorporate it into the new faith –than to abolish it – giving rise to excess debauchery that remains a common prelude to Lent even today.
In medieval Europe, the traditions of Mardi Gras changed and spread worldwide over the centuries, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries in the House of the Bourbons. And it came to North America from France in 1699, landing either in New Orleans or, some say, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1703. But the rapid spread of the eat, drink, and be merry tradition had a practical side too.
Lenten restrictions were stringent, and Christians were required to abstain from all meats and other foods that came from animals, such as butter, cheese, eggs, and milk, but there was no way to keep such foods from spoiling; thus everything in the larder had to be eaten, or it would rot and be thrown away. Hence a final feast-like meal the night before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the forty days of fasting and penance until Easter Sunday, became ritualized, but the good intentions of Mardi Gras the tradition also had and still has, a dark side.
As Lenten restrictions loosened, the seedier side of the festivities became more popular and disorderly. Unfortunately, the more solemn and spiritual reasons associated with this day have been pushed into the background, despite the ashes distributed on Ash Wednesday in churches worldwide. Crosses of ash are traced on foreheads as the priest or minister intones the warning, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
French customs that traveled to the States were eating pancakes, waffles, beignets, and crepes, and throwing beads and flowers from parade floats to people in the streets, but over time, the parades and floats in New Orleans took on another life. Sumptuous and sexy costumes became the rule, with characters on the floats shouting to women in the street “show me what you’ve got,” encouraging girls to bare their breasts to get cheap, plastic beads.
The Mardi Gras tradition in Italy is called Carnevale (from the Latin, Carne–meat; vale-goodbye), harkens back to their original intent. In Venice, there are genuine Renaissance costumes worn by city workers who must remain silent and stay in character when circulating among the revelers. Food, family entertainment, face painting, games, and the famed Venetian masks are everywhere.
Never meant to be a celebration for its own purpose, Mardi Gras also projects an atmosphere of secrecy. People can hide behind their masks, be who they want and do things they usually wouldn’t consider. It is a fertile setting for destructive behaviors and crime and the backdrop for the first book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series.
Traveling from Venice, Italy, to Austin, Texas, where the Mardi Gras celebrations are more along the lines of the original intent of stuffing oneself with food and drink, it is the underlying sense of something evil lurking that opens the story on Fat Tuesday in I’m Going to Kill that Cat. The following morning, Ash Wednesday, before ashes can be distributed in the church, a body is found in the alley next to the rectory. And now, on the first day of Lent, Father Melvyn and Mrs. B. are pulled into a murder investigation, forcing them to confront shocking old scandals and vengeance.