One thing I love about living in Louisiana is that we, as a culture, live according to the liturgical calendar in a way that most Americans do not. This is mostly due to our history as a colony of two former Catholic superpowers, France and Spain, a legacy that also left us with some awfully tasty food. Despite our ever-shifting demographics and the rise of secularism, Louisianians continue to cling to our cultural-liturgical calendar with the tenacity of, well, Louisianians. We do not let go of history easily here. We’ve been a state since 1812, yet our legal system is still based on the Napoleonic Code, and we still have parishes instead of counties. If someone tells you he is from St. Mary Parish, that is not his church affiliation. It’s his address.
It’s true that Louisianians have motives beyond religious piety or mere traditionalism for maintaining our liturgical feasts. Only in Louisiana do you see headlines like Early Date of Easter May Be Costly for Businesses that Cater to Mardi Gras. But for all the capitalism and debauchery that have become integrated into our celebrations, when all is said and done, we are still a liturgical culture, and this is most obvious during the time of year between Christmas and Easter.
It starts with Epiphany, which serves the dual purpose of being both the acknowledged end of Christmas and the start of the Mardi Gras season. I did not see a single Christmas tree on my street put out for haul-away before Epiphany this year; it is a mark of pride that the tree must stay up until Epiphany. Folks with dried-out pine needles strewn across the living room tend to use the new Roman calendar, by which Epiphany fell on January 3 this year. Die-hards know that Epiphany is and always has been January 6, which is also affectionately called King Cake Day. The unofficial state dessert is, of course, named for the Three Kings who visited Baby Jesus on Epiphany, but it remains in season until Ash Wednesday. A small, plastic Baby Jesus is hidden in the cake, and whoever “gets the baby” has to bring the King Cake for the next party. Or just has bragging rights, depending whose party you go to. King Cakes look like big purple, green, and gold doughnuts and range in consistency from cinnamon French bread with icing on top all the way up to cream cheese and fruit filled gooeyness dripping with coronary-blocking yum. But, regardless of one’s religious convictions (because what religion objects to cake?), King Cake can only be eaten between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. You cannot buy one in October for love nor money. Or, at least, you couldn’t until very recently. More on that later.
King Cake is also the first visible sign that Mardi Gras has begun. The words Mardi Gras literally mean “Fat Tuesday,” and should technically only refer to the day before Ash Wednesday. But here, Mardi Gras means what Carnival means in Venice or Rio. It is the entire season from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and it does not take long for the parades to start rolling. Outsiders tend to think of Mardi Gras as belonging strictly to New Orleans, which could not be further from the truth. Nor is it true that Mardi Gras is only about drunk girls lifting their shirts to get beads. That does happen, and I can’t say there’s any cultural-liturgical justification for it. But it’s only permissible in a small section of the French Quarter centered around Bourbon Street. If you tried it anywhere else, you might get arrested. Which is to say, all the terrible things you’ve heard about Mardi Gras–including an increasing number of shootings each year–are true, but they are only a small part of the story.
Parades are the biggest and most widely-celebrated Mardi Gras tradition. Nearly every town in South Louisiana has at least one, ranging from homemade truck or boat parades up to the multi-million dollar showcases in New Orleans. But Mardi Gras is also a time of masquerade balls and a few more interesting traditions, such as the Courir de Mardi Gras, which involves costumed men, sometimes on horseback, going from house to house collecting ingredients to make a gumbo, and often causing mischief along the way. Needless to say, all of this is accompanied by an abundance of music, food, and alcohol.
But Mardi Gras is only possible because it points toward Ash Wednesday. It is the only cultural season I know of whose ending no one dares to overstep. I have seen Halloween festivities scheduled on All Saints Day, but it is unthinkable that Mardi Gras could ever extend into Ash Wednesday. By Tuesday night, the parades are finished, and when midnight tolls (or often before), everyone goes home, and the massive campaign of street-sweeping begins.
Because of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday maintains a hold on the collective consciousness of Louisiana that it does not in other parts of the U.S. Everyone has heard of Christmas and Easter Catholics, who only go to church on those two days, but we also have Ash Wednesday Catholics. No one will pretend that Ash Wednesday Masses are as packed as the streets during the Bacchus parade, but they are packed. Some loyal Evangelicals go to Mass on Ash Wednesday; they recognize in the ashes a poignant symbol that their own churches are unwilling to provide. Many fallen-away Catholics who do not bother with Christmas and Easter still come on Ash Wednesday. Something inside them still resonates with the message of repentance. Ash Wednesday has become a trendy feast in recent years, with celebrities posting their #ashtags, but this is nothing new to us here. (It’s also no accident that many of the celebrities who’ve made #ashtags a “thing” have roots in Louisiana.) In some ways, Ash Wednesday has long been the holiest day of our cultural year. It really is a day of fast and abstinence–often because of the hangovers, but the recognition of a need to abstain is still there. This is also the day when King Cake disappears from the bakery shelves, another visible sign that something has changed, a line has been drawn, and the time of feasting is done.
At least until Friday.
Whoever decided that Lenten sacrifice should be associated with eating seafood effectively doomed everyone in Louisiana to miss the point, because Lent corresponds with seafood season. Crawfish, shrimp, and oysters are all at the peak of their harvest during Lent, and a few years back the Archbishop of New Orleans was even prevailed upon to officially designate alligator as “seafood.” This means that Fridays during Lent are the absolute best days of the year to go out to eat. Remember that scene in Forrest Gump where Bubba spends all of basic training listing the dishes his Mama made with shrimp? We’ve got all of those, plus the crawfish and oysters, plus all the wonderful game fish from the Gulf of Mexico… Lent is a big deal for the restaurant business in Louisiana. If sacrifice means eating fried catfish smothered in shrimp étoufée, then pretty much everyone is on board.
So maybe we don’t do Lent exactly the way the Church intended it, but at least there is a general consciousness that Lent exists, that Easter does not spring up from a vacuum, and that some sort of sacrifice is required.
Louisiana totters onward through its season of faux sacrifice to arrive at Good Friday, which is a state holiday. But nine other states also take the day off on Good Friday. This is the point in the liturgical calendar when Louisiana begins to look more like the rest of America. Except that it marks the last hurrah of the seafood extravaganza, there is no special cultural rite for Good Friday, and I’ve never heard of such a thing as Good Friday Catholics. Good Friday is the point at which cultural Catholicism and true Christian worship divide–as they must. It takes a more specifically Christian worldview to celebrate the crucifixion than it does to wear ashes on one’s forehead. It requires both courage and faith to prostrate oneself before the cross and name a dead man as God. Ash Wednesday is vague, a general call to recognize that one’s life is not all it could be. Good Friday is specific, demanding that we recognize Jesus Christ as the remedy for our ills even while we hold ourselves accountable for His slaughter. I am glad we have no watered-down cultural version of Good Friday.
Having lived in South Louisiana nearly all my life, I find that a great deal of good comes from being part of a liturgical culture, even though I freely acknowledge the ways in which our culture has twisted the Church’s intentions for the seasons. Although it is increasingly common for Louisianians to participate in the cultural aspects of our traditions while ignoring their religious roots, I do not think anyone can truly anticipate King Cake Day without at least subconsciously remembering that it exists because of the King. So it grieves me to admit that within the last few years, I have begun to see the lines of King Cake Season blurred. The same cherished recipes are beginning to be repackaged with different colors of icing as Valentine’s Day Cakes, Easter Cakes, and so on. This past year, my husband came home from the grocery store in the middle of December with an honest-to-goodness King Cake, dressed up in purple, green, and gold. Greed has finally gotten the best of the bakeries (and their customers.) The cracks in the foundation of the liturgical culture have widened. How quickly they will spread is anybody’s guess, although I think it’s safe to say that as long as Mardi Gras remains a hundred-million-dollar industry, it won’t be going anywhere. But how long it will continue to point Louisiana’s people toward Ash Wednesday, who can say?
Catholicism as culture, which exists in various forms throughout the world, is not nearly as important to the Church’s mission as true Christian worship. But a Catholic culture is a kind of evangelization that gently nudges everyone within its reach toward the Church and the true meaning of its celebrations. I am grateful to have grown up as both a cultural Catholic and a religious one. I only pray that Louisiana will be able to provide my children and grandchildren with the same experience.