Tuesday, January 13, 2009

MASKING AND MARDI GRAS


Winter in south Louisiana isn’t a dull time of year. It’s time for pageantry, parading, and masking for Mardi Balls. Carnival balls had their origins in antiquity when during the cold season of the year, people felt called to get together to celebrate their aliveness despite the fact that the weather was cold and icy. The weather IS cold and icy, and the bakeries have begun baking their purple and gold king cakes, planning Mardi Gras balls, and choosing Kings and Queens for the local Krewes in even the smallest town.

From 1805-1819, Spanish rulers in Louisiana outlawed masking , but in 1827, citizens in New Orleans, “The City That Care Forgot,” petitioned the City Council to legalize the custom of masking. Before parades became prevalent in New Orleans, revelers, masked and costumed, attended carnival balls and dressed as humans with bird or beast heads or as birds with human heads. After parades became a part of the Mardi Gras scene, masking persisted for those who didn’t belong to secret societies that organized the parades. By 1860, maskers were sometimes pelted with sticks, stones, and lime in the streets of New Orleans. Because of this uproar, masking was almost banned; however, with police control, street masking became an official part of the parades and other Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.

So you wonder why the hurrah about masking? In an article entitled “Carnival Universal,” that appeared in the “Mobile Bay Monthly” a few years ago, Eugene Walter pointed out that the French sociologist and philosopher Roger Caillois believed that masks were more common than spear, bow, arrow, or plow and reflect the unity of human experience – more than any belief, tool, custom, or invention! He believed that entire civilizations flourished without the wheel but not without the mask. Painters in prehistoric caves showed dancers wearing animal masks; warriors wore masks to intimidate their enemies, and masks were used for solemn rituals and comic occasions. Walter emphasized that at carnival time, men masquerade as totems of virility – as horses, rams, dogs, and bears.

Today, in Cajun country, the custom of masking for grand balls or on the actual day of “Fat Tuesday” signifies a time of fun when a person can be a dog, a cat, a mouse, or a monster and can become anything or anyone he wishes to be during that time. He can impersonate an ancestor or a spirit, can be alive in a joyous and unrestrained way while wearing the disguise or mask…can say, with abandon, “laissez les bon temps roulez!”
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