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Mardi Gras, the King Cake and the economy

Updated on February 18, 2009

A brief history of the annual party


Many people who are unfamiliar with the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration and whose only experience of the event is from television news articles showing revelers "gone wild" do not understand that this celebration is actually very historic and very much tied to religion. A good example of this is the King Cake.

The King Cake is a celebratory pastry honoring the Kings who came in search of the newborn King, Jesus. It is served any time during the Mardi Gras season at a King Cake Party. The cake itself may come in many forms, but the traditional cake starts with twisted strands of cinnamon dough formed into a circle. The twisted strands and circle represent the unity of faiths. The cake is iced and decorated with the three, Mardi Gras colors: Gold, Green and Purple. Gold is for power, Green is for faith and Purple is for justice. Also, baked somewhere deep inside of the cake is a small, plastic "baby" representing the Christ child. Eating the cake at the King Cake party recreates the search for the newborn Jesus and the lucky partygoer who finds the baby receives the honor of hosting next year’s King Cake Party.

Historically, the Christmas season lasted twelve "nights", as in the Shakespeare play, "The Twelfth Night". The twelve days of Christmas represented the twelve days it took the three kings to find the mother and child. The twelfth night is known as "Epiphany" and begins the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans which lasts, naturally, until Ash Wednesday when Lent begins.

Lent in English, is the forty-day period before Easter. The name derives from Greek "quadragesima" which means "the fortieth day". The name, preserved in other languages, is "cuaresma" in Spanish, "quaresma" in Portuguese, "careme" in French, and "quaresima" in Italian. The forty-day period is reserved for sacrifice, penance and cleansing before Easter. Religious people are expected to forego many of the day-to-day luxuries they take for granted throughout the year in their own, personal recreation of Christ’s suffering on the way to crucifixion. People naturally want to "live it up" before beginning the pre-Easter renewal and Mardi Gras is their chance.

Many historians believe that the Mardi Gras celebration is a hybrid celebration combining Roman Saturnalia with Christian Christmas/Easter activities. Others note that the partying and indulgence leading up to the forty days of Lent often involve people with no intent of repentance either before or after Easter, no religious affiliation of any kind and absolutely no plans for halting the party anytime in the near future. Visitors certainly can find the experience of Mardi Gras just about any night of the year on Bourbon Street, but, nonetheless, the religious ties do exist.

Mardi Gras, "Fat Tuesday", in 2009 is February 24 and right around the corner. If you have not already, now is a good time to plan a King Cake Party, celebrate the continuance of life, and think about some type of personal sacrifice for Lent. Whatever you do, it is nice to know and understand at least a little bit about the history of events. Although Mardi Gras is time for party and celebration, the period of Lent is a good time for introspection and renewal, by anyone, and, considering the continuing decline of the economy, America just may entering its own long, long period of Lent. Enjoy your King Cake!


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