Mardi Gras is coming up. Mardi Gras—French for “Fat Tuesday”—marks the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the day on which, in the Catholic tradition, you are reminded of your mortality. You go to church and have ashes spread on your forehead in the shape of a cross and the priest says, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” You wear these ashes all day, not washing them off. “Public-ers” (Catholic for “public school kids”) don’t comment; they’ve seen this before. It is a ritual that, believe it or not, is comforting to children. At last, they think, somebody is mentioning it. Somebody besides themselves knows that, when it comes to life, there’s a catch.
In terms of yearly cycles, Ash Wednesday either marks the first day of Lent, or the close of the pre-Lenten season, depending on your perspective. Lent is the 47-day period (40 weekdays, if theological numerology is important here) before Easter Sunday. It is a dark, barren period, in which you fast or give things up. The modern Catholic Church sometimes seems to want to give Lent a proactive spin, encouraging the doing of good works, etc. But really a truly Lenten mindset is blank, desert-like, and spare—the wind whistling through the canyons of the soul. It’s similar to Advent—the four-week period before Christmas that coincides with the days leading up to the winter solstice, which marks the turn from increasing darkness to incremental accruals of light.
Lent, though, is harder. Harsher. Advent is poignant and somewhat sad. Lent is depressing. Both are characterized by a state of absence. It’s a state that isn’t actively bad, it’s just—without. It is lacking. What exactly is lacking is where religion come in, which we don’t need to worry about here. Suffice it to say that before Lent comes, you need a party.
Hence Mardi Gras, a day of indulgence and revelry. If you aren’t a Lenten sort of person, then you think of Mardi Gras mainly as the last day of the pre-Lenten period, which in many Catholic countries involves many days of carnivalizing. The word “carnival,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is thought to come from the Medieval Latin carnem levare, which means to remove meat, an allusion, perhaps, to the upcoming fasting. The carnival state, though, is mainly one of inversion. Things are not what they seem (thus the masks). Things are turned on their heads. You could think of it as dancing in the face of death, but that sounds a little poetic. It’s closer to flipping death off. And there’s an undercurrent of that feeling in the Ash Wednesday ritual. (Although some devotees of the carnival approach to life look on Ash Wednesday as, most of all, the first day of preparation for the next carnival period.)
So carnival implies Lent, Lent implies carnival. The most famous carnival on Mardi Gras in the United States is, of course, the one in New Orleans. While it is said to be an elaborate social dance, the hierarchy of which is, for the most part, invisible to the carousing outsiders, it surely has a lot to do, too, with the ultimate common ground of death, and the dust and ashes theme.
Here in Missoula, enthusiasts have turned that into mud, with MUDdi Gras, sponsored by the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD). The theme is “Masking the Winter Chill with a Red-Hot Festival of Down Home Thrills.” The Lenten aspect will be there, you see, even if dressed up as Old Man Winter.
The Second Annual MUDdi Gras begins with the MUDdi Gras Festival at the Union Club on Saturday, March 4 from 2 to 6 p.m., followed by a parade from the Union Hall through downtown between 6 and 7 p.m. Admission to both events is free. The MUDdi Gras Masquerade Ball will then be held in the Florence Building from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tickets $20 advance, $25 at the door. Call 721-7513.