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Mardi Gras and Purim

This year, the Jewish holiday of Purim is on March 12th, which is so close to Mardi Gras (Feb 28th), the parallels are impossible to miss. I experienced Mardi Gras in Lafayette and Kaplan, the latter, far enough into the countryside where you can still find the vestiges of some extremely old traditions in practice. (Mardi Gras is celebrated all over Louisiana and not just in New Orleans). Listening to a truly fantastic show on KRVS about the Mardi Gras traditions in southwest Louisiana and their history going back to “outlaw days”, medieval times, and the ancient customs of Saturnalia. Celebrants play roles in Mardi Gras. The King of Mardi Gras is traditionally the town fool, and in some town, this reversal results in the symbolic punishing of innocents. (Ironically, this happens even in Mardi Gras without Fool Kings, as hundreds are arrested and incarcerated for the hamless practice of flashing). If this reminds one of Ahashverosh, the easily manipulated Persian King of the Scrool of Esther, I think it should. Mardi Gras also takes place on Feb 28th, one day removed from the leap year day of Feb 29th. Days like these, outside of the normal calendar, or on the fringe, are often associated with libertine practice as they appear on the surface to defy the orthodox cosmology of the ordered kingdom. Thus it is auspicious day for partying under the command of another kingship, that of the Fool. I remember learning back in college how the ancient egyptians (I think) had a period of 5 days at the end of their year which were considered outside the norm, because the circle only had 360 degrees and each day of the year would correspond to one degree of the circle. Except for those five days. But it would be a mistake only to see Mardi Gras as time when “all is allowed” — this day fits squarely in a tradition of penitence where there is considerable roleplaying. I experienced bead throwing (and bead giving)… what I didn’t understand until this week was the symbology of this relationship between givers and receivers. In many parts of Lousiana there is a ritual where men in costume chase after chickens. In other places, men play the role of beggars and go door to door asking for a chicken or for gumbo, and in still other places, men on horseback or in very scary outfits pretend to steal women (for dancing) and to abduct or scare children. I listened on the show on KRVS about the coming of age experiences of boys who were frightened but eventually were old enough to stand up to this hazing. So interesting. The obvious parallel to Purim is the wearing of masks. I learned here that masks are worn exclusively by the bead givers. Bead supplicants will beg for beads, which I took to be tokens or fetishes for forgiveness and love and prosperity. and that is why they felt imbued with a magical richness despite their being manufactured cheap plastic made in China. I understood why it was taboo to throw the beads back towards the masked bead throwers — such an action makes no sense within the symbolic logic of the ritual! I think the masks (or face paint) are there to indicate that the person giving the beads is not to be identified as an individual, but as a roleplayer. Next year I would like to explore even more outlying villages. (I swear I should have become a folklorist or mythologist; I will have to find some way of incorporating these interests into planning — maybe through responsible and thoughtful heritage tourism programming).

UPDATE: James Hebert, KRVS Operations Manager writes me, “Regarding the Mardi-Gras special we aired Tuesday, it’s Dance for a Chicken, a video documentary produced by Pat Mire Films. It’s available at 1-800-256-8471, or 337-232-0700, or 625 Garfield Street Lafayette, LA 70115.”

From the Pat Mire Films website:

Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras (1993, 60 mins. Color). This award-winning film brims over with stunning images of carnival play and a rich soundtrack of hot Cajun music. Cajun filmmaker Pat Mire gives us an inside look at the colorful, rural Cajun Mardi Gras. Every year before Lent begins, processions of masked and costumed revelers, often on horseback, go from house to house gathering ingredients for communal gumbos in communities across rural southwest Louisiana. The often-unruly participants in this ancient tradition play as beggars, fools, and thieves as they raid farmsteads and perform in exchange for charity or, in other words, “dance for a chicken.”

“Dance for a Chicken is an articulate, intelligent, and compelling film portraying the richness of indigenous Louisiana Cajun culture. Without question the best Mardi Gras film to date. A true gem.” — Tom Rankin, Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

“Dance for a Chicken” was the winner of the “Award of Excellence” at the 1993 American Anthropological Association Film Festival.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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