Mardi Gras is a rowdy secular celebration that has been part of the official Catholic Church calendar since 1582. The season of merriment, which begins on Epiphany and ends on Fat Tuesday, is filled with rambunctious masquerading in the streets and mysterious masked balls. Over the centuries, masks have become an icon of the holiday, and they often reflect the community's deep roots in the Catholic faith.
As the official colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green and gold generously decorate Mardi Gras masks. The Catholic Church also uses these sacred colors during Lent on the priest’s vestments and the altar’s banners. The Mardi Gras symbol for justice, purple is commonly used in Catholicism to portray Christ's suffering before his crucifixion and to reinforce repentance for sins. Representing faith, green embodies renewal, rebirth and an unwavering trust in God. On a Mardi Gras mask, gold signifies power. In Catholicism, gold is a majestic color often used in the depictions of God.
The religious purpose of Mardi Gras is for celebrants to purge their souls of all desires so they are ready to commit to 40 days of fasting and repentance during Lent. To avoid community reproach for their high jinks, they use masks to conceal their identities. Most krewes, the social clubs that host Mardi Gras festivities, require parade participants to wear their masks at all times or else face immediate dismissal.
Masks also empower participants to express unpopular or illegal opinions and to explore roles that are out of reach in everyday life. It is common for maskers to assume the identity of those who occupy powerful positions of authority, such as political figures, the intellects and the clergy. Men often wear a white simplex miter with red fringes, the traditional Lenten headgear of Roman Catholic bishops and abbots. Females don capuchons, which are conical hats draped with a veil that were once favored by French noble women.
A Mardi Gras mask is deeply personal, typically revealing the wearer’s hopes, societal beliefs or a hidden identity. In an article on CatholicNewWorld.com, Franciscan Father Robert Pawell explains that the mask is powerful enough to awaken spiritual growth and renewal. “It is a time to seek our true face and look at, ‘Who do I think I am?’ There’s a whole psychic release when you begin to laugh at yourself,” he says. Barry Ancelet, head of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Folklore Department, believes masking is also an essential way for communities to celebrate and find themselves, as reported by DeepSouthMag.com.
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