My wife, Julia, and I recently were commissioned to create a show for Mardi Gras. It was fun expanding our musical repertoire but we also had a great time learning about the history and motivations behind the Mardi Gras Celebration. Now, as we prepare for the Jewish holiday of Purim, I am hyper-aware of the similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras and have been reflecting on the role that festivals play in our lives.
Below the surface of masks, noise makers, colorful costumes, and an abundance of libations and traditional delectibles, there is a deeper significance. Festivals can be a relief valve for our personal psyche and an opportunity to reconnect to one another in a subtle way beyond the obvious excesses.
Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday is the height and grand finale for the carnival season that kicks off January 6th on Three Kings’ Day, or the 12th day of Christmas. This extended party before Lent, which was officially added to the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory XIII, is not only about parades, beads and hot jazz. There are dances, balls and, more importantly, repeated family gatherings. One tradition during these gatherings is the serving of the King’s Cake, or “La Rosca De Reyes” to your guests. Whoever finds a little plastic baby in their slice not only gets good luck for the year, but gets the honor of throwing the next party during the season.
The term, “Carnival” comes from the Latin and means, “farewell to meat.” This is because many people give up meat, at least on Fridays during Lent. This definition speaks to me of the balance carnival suggests. Not that we let ourselves go into perpetual depravity but that there is a time for everything, including uninhibited rejoicing.
There is a law in New Orleans prohibiting the wearing of masks on the streets. The exception to this rule is during Fat Tuesday when parade riders on the many floats can actually be fined for not wearing masks. This upside-down mentality is intended to allow all participants in carnival to transcend society and class dictates and confinements.
Down in Rio, over two million people fill the streets from all over the world. Residents from the favelas, or shanty towns, are honored and uplifted alongside other locals as they march and ride on floats in the great samba parade.
Shakespeare’s reminder that, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” is echoed in the dictate given on Purim to drink until you cannot tell the difference between the hero and the villain in the play or Purim Spiel presented during the holiday. This mandate, meant for adults, is restricted to this holiday. It is not encouraging loutish behavior, but asks the participants to push their boundaries communally. The drinking can be literal or figurative but going beyond the mind’s labels into a state of being where we are all one is the aim of this annual fête.
Purim tells the story of standing up for your beliefs in the face of oppression. It demonstrates the courage to overcome our inclinations to seek personal power at the expense of our humanity. It is a victorious celebration of our diversity, which manages to thrive, despite any demagogue’s attempts to destroy those that are different.
The recent disgraceful anti-Semitic displays in this year’s carnivals in Belgium and Spain are a sad reminder that, while we have rituals to free ourselves from prejudice and narrow-minded confinement, we can all too easily divorce ourselves from higher intention and slip into mob mentality.
Carnival, at its best, revels in all of life dancing together.
(Photo by Sergey OrlovTASS via Getty Images)
The Hindu festival of Holi overlaps Purim this year and embraces the true intention of carnival with childlike delight and abandon. Similar to Purim, it starts in the evening and goes through the next day.
After the lighting of huge bonfires, symbolizing the triumph of good over the bad in our lives, the merry making of Holi begins. It is a festival of love and colors.
Neighbors, families, and friends gather in the streets, smearing each other with vibrantly colored powder called gulal. Water balloons are also filled with colored water and the rich and poor alike are doused to mask any differences between them; superficial separateness is lost in clouds of color.
Like Mardi Gras and Purim, the streets are filled with music. There is a spirit of real play and a pronounced intention to release bad feelings, encourage reconciliation and strengthen bonds of affection.
Chinese New Year is a 15-day celebration that started this year at the end of January. It gathers friends and family together with food, wine, colorful attire and parades. Monsters are ceremonially warded off with firecrackers.
The main Buddhist festival is Buddha Day, Buddha Jayanti, Wesak, or Vaisakha. It is coming up in May this year and rejoices in the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death– all in one day. While it is not called carnival, there is a “farewell to meat,” as the feasts are all vegetarian.
One of the eight precepts followed during Buddha day is to refrain from killing. Slaughterhouses are closed. In some places, birds and caged animals are released in a symbolic act of liberation.
Imbibing in the communal aspect of the holiday, part of the day is dedicated to the happiness of others, especially the underserved, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly. Charity is intermingled with distributing food, decorating and painting temples and public places to bring an aesthetic beauty for all to enjoy.
Liquor stores are closed, so the party becomes more reflective to contemplate the temporal aspect of this banquet of life.
Although it doesn’t happen at this time of year, the celebration leading up to the Islamic New Year is often honored with colorful displays from the whirling dervishes. Whirling dervishes are Sufi dancers whose extended twirling is a meditative practice to induce inner peace while promoting external world peace.
Sufi poetry uses imagery of wine and the Tavern. The intoxication described is not literal but is a euphoric connection with the Source of Being that overcomes separation and despair. This connection makes it easier for these Islamic mystics to embrace the interconnected bond we all share.
All of these festivals, except for Mardi Gras, coincide with the full moon. In Judaism, the name for each new month and moon also mean, renewal. The fullness of our “Being” gives way to a reset or renewal of ourselves in conjunction with something literally outside of our world.
The idea of carnival designed to break us out of our routine. It’s not business as usual. The lighthearted disruption has the capacity to loosen the vice-grip of our mindset.
While most of our rituals have lost their original intentions becoming rote and consumer-driven, I am grateful for these uninhibited festivals, in all of their forms. I hope that the revelry inspires us to heal the seeming divide between us, even without the masks. Especially without the masks ; )