Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, is marked in modern Britain by the ever-present pancakes served on that day. Last year I happened to have mine at the House of Commons canteen. These are a tiny vestige of what was once an extraordinary time of feasting, wherein all foods forbidden in Lent – including the butter used to fry up the pancakes – had to be used up.
Of course, all who could went to confession as being “shriven” gave its name to the day, and the “pancake bell” in some localities is the sole remnant of the call to the confessional of days gone by. But the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and culminating on the day before came to include not merely consumption of vast amounts of meat, eggs, cheese, butter and all the other Lent-forbidden foods, but oceans of wine and beer to wash them down with, ballgames that made rugby look like croquet, processions and parades, masqued balls and parties of all descriptions.
After the Reformation, the celebrations of old dwindled down to their present state in Britain, as they did in most European Protestant countries, although there remain certain culinary remnants in these places (like the pancakes) and other local customs have survived in a few favoured spots. But the celebration is kept up with something of its old splendour in much of the until recently Catholic world: Rome, Paris, Venice, Cologne, and Naples – and in the New World daughter nations: Quebec, Rio, the Caribbean, and many other places.
Ironically, however, one prominent region of the Kingdom of Carnival’s sway is in the United States. Carnival rules in French- and Spanish-settled southern Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf states.
Apart from the sheer debauchery of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where tourists from Toledo and Kansas City delight in showing one another their various fleshly appendages, the City that Care Forgot serves as the capital of American Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). For the locals, it is a family-friendly tradition of balls and parades carried on by the city’s numerous semi-secret organisations, the Krewes. For two weeks and more, gorgeously costumed and masked members put on parades in various parts of the city and suburbs, tossing beads, candy and plastic coins at cheering onlookers from incredible floats.
Some of the Krewes, like those of Comus, Momus, and Rex, are aristocratic. (New Orleans, as with all our older cities, boasts an urban patriciate as or more exclusive than any in Europe.) Others are all black, like Zulu and the Mardi Gras Indians. In this magical time class and ethnic distinctions fade away, until just before midnight. Then the King of Rex – who is King of Mardi Gras, and receives control of the city from the mayor the previous morning – leaves his ball at one end of the Roosevelt Hotel to attend the King of Comus (the oldest Krewe) at the other side of the building. They toast at 12, and Mardi Gras is over. The police ride through the streets on horseback; Lent arrives with them.
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