The cancellation of Mardi Gras! Galveston, the two-week long celebration held on the island every year, has prompted some to assume that Mardi Gras itself is canceled. But that would be like saying Christmas was canceled simply because many of us could not partake in our annual traditions.
The public celebration, historically referred to as Carnival, is only one facet of Mardi Gras. Directly translated, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday,” but it has long referred to the entire festival season that links Epiphany and Ash Wednesday.
The evolution of the ongoing holiday season between December and February—connecting Christmas, Mardi Gras, and Easter—goes back centuries, prior to the spread of Christianity across Europe. Collective celebrations began as non-religious observations of Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year that falls on or around December 21, followed by a weeks-long season of feasting and celebration known as Saturnalia.
As Christianity was cultivated and became the principal religion of most European countries, church leaders noticed that recent converts were reluctant to relinquish their celebratory traditions and thus, hesitantly allowed them to continue albeit with modifications. Fortunately, much of the symbolism was interchangeable.
Winter Solstice, which marks the “return of the sun” when the days begin to lengthen, mirrored the redemption of mankind through Jesus Christ. Evergreen trees were a Saturnalia symbol of renewed life, another theme that easily translated to Christianity.
Then in 1852, Pope Gregory enacted the modern calendar as we know it today. The previous version, known as the lunar calendar, had only 354 days and ended on December 25.
When Gregory extended the calendar to 365 days to coincide with the phases of the sun, those twelve “extra” days were seen as existing outside of linear time, symbolizing a deliberate pause to life’s events for introspection and spiritual deliberation.
This was the basis for the Twelve Days of Christmas which begins on Christmas Day and ends with Twelfth Night (or Epiphany Eve) on January 5. The weeks before Christmas Day, now generally viewed as the Christmas season, are technically called Advent, and January 6 was dubbed Epiphany, a symbol of the three wise men arriving at the stable.
New Year’s Day conveniently fell exactly halfway through on the sixth day, which meant that every year would both end and begin with this special time of celebration and contemplation.
Shortly after he altered the calendar, Pope Gregory began a tradition of announcing on Epiphany the dates of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Subsequently, he established the three days prior to Ash Wednesday as Carnival, a time of feasting and festival that would culminate with Shrove Tuesday.
However, as the Vatican gained control of most of western civilization, they were confronted with the notion that a longer celebratory season like that of Saturnalia was necessary for the general welfare of the people.
Thus, it was decided that Carnival season would officially begin on Epiphany, which eventually led to the tradition of king cakes. During Saturnalia celebrations, a bean was cooked into a cake, and the finder of the bean was named “king for a day.”
After the transition to Christmas, this custom first became a staple of parties held on Epiphany, but the bean was changed to a baby in honor of the baby Jesus. When Epiphany was given double-duty as the first day of Carnival, the king cake tradition gradually became linked with Carnival instead of Christmas, and instead of “king,” the finder of the baby was to bring the cake or host a party the next day.
Shrove Tuesday was later renamed “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras, the latter of which eventually became the name of the entire celebratory season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. “Carnival” came to denote the largest of the public celebrations held in the last weeks of the Mardi Gras season.
This time of revelry was of course balanced by Lent, the feasts and parties giving way to a time of fasting and restraint and ending with Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Although Mardi Gras obviously sprang from religious tradition, the successive string of celebrations and observances have evolved to represent the seasons and cycles of life that exist outside of religion: preparation (Advent), reflection (the Twelve Days of Christmas), celebration (Mardi Gras), and fasting (Lent). Locally, Mardi Gras especially grew to have an even more dynamic meaning as it became ingrained into the island’s identity.
Unfortunately, the carnival period will be noticeably absent from 2021, but this is not the first time that Galveston has been forced to forgo the public festivities. Mardi Gras has been a part of island culture since Restoration; the first celebrations of the holiday began here in the late 1860s.
Grand balls and raucous parades grew in size and scope throughout the late 19th Century and continued until the 1930s. Unfortunately, the Great Depression rendered the outward celebrations gratuitous, and they were indefinitely canceled.
Finally, in 1983 Galveston native, oilman, and philanthropist George Mitchell revived the age-old community traditions, but it was not only because of his significant financial investment that he was able to do so. The eagerness and willingness of the city to bring back the public carnival predominantly arose from the fact that locals had never really stopped celebrating Mardi Gras.
Despite fifty years without one parade or masquerade, private observance of Mardi Gras continued inside the homes of islanders who were now thrilled to take part in resuming the collective revelry enjoyed by previous generations.
This year, the majority of Galvestonians are holding fast to Mardi Gras, as well they should. Houses are still decked in green, gold, and purple, while the glow of a Christmas tree still lingers in many a window, having effectively been transformed into a Mardi Gras tree.
As part of an effort initiated by the New Orleans’ Krewe of House Floats, Galveston’s Krewe of Saints has organized the 2021 House Floats Galveston. In this reverse-engineered parade, participants who have decorated their houses, yards, and porches are listed on a map at www.KreweOfSaints.org.
Enjoy a self-guided tour of the homes through Fat Tuesday (February 16). On February 13 from 5-7pm, residents of the houses on the map will be standing outside to toss beads and interact with passers-by while observing social distance recommendations.
Notwithstanding the cancellation of parades, balcony parties, and umbrella brigades, present-day locals have adhered to their observance of this distinct holiday season, much like the islanders who clung to their private traditions for half a century despite no outward celebration. If they managed to hold on for fifty years, we can certainly do so for one.