By Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson
Mardi Gras is over. Fat Tuesday has passed. Ash Wednesday then Lent.
Of course you won’t see many ash-smudged foreheads up in Northeast Alabama.
There Catholics and their Episcopal cousins are a distinct minority in these parts. Which was why I was so surprised when, shortly [after] I took the job at Jacksonville State, an Anniston friend invited my wife and me to join the Mardi Gras festivities at the local country club.
What, I asked myself, was Mardi Gras doing in Anniston, so far from the coast and coastal Catholics? Heck, I grew up less than 100 miles from Mobile and we didn’t mark Mardi Gras. Our Protestant preachers said it was Papist, hinted it was pagan, and warned us away. So we took no more notice of Fat Tuesday than we did St. Agnes Eve and the Feast of Stephen.
It was not until I was in college that I actually went to Mardi Gras. A classmate from Mobile invited me. I had never seen anything like it. Grown men and women spending money like it didn’t matter to dress up, strut around, get drunk, ride floats, and entertain the masses who stood in the streets and fought over the trinkets thrown down to them. It was the most blatant display of social snobbery and class condescension that I had ever witnessed.
I loved every minute of it.
Back at my host’s house I mentioned what a good time I was having. “That’s nice,” smiled his grandmother, the family matriarch. Then she sighed, “but you should have seen it back in my day, back before they came to town.”
Then from her Episcocratic perspective she explained to me how, since World War II, Mardi Gras has lost sight of its original purpose – to prepare for Lent. This was because, she went on, “during the War those people came in to work in the shipyard and when it was over they stayed. Mardi Gras has never been the same since.”
“Those people” were country folks, rural Protestants of the evangelical persuasion who brought with them country beliefs and customs that clashed with old Mobile’s traditions of High Church conservatism, religious toleration, social stratification and easy going intemperance. Country folks, my people, were social levelers, stern, and intolerant. Mardi Gras ran counter to all they had been raised to believe.
Things I learned later filled the gaps in what she told me and fleshed out the story. First the new arrivals tried to ignore Mardi Gras. And when that proved impossible, they preached against it, only to find that many who were in the pews on Sunday had been out on the parade route the night before. So they introduced ordinances designed to curb what they felt were the celebration’s greatest excesses – public intoxication being high on the list. But even when the ordinances passed, they never accomplished what was intended, for the spirit of Mardi Gras could not be contained.
So the guardians of morality tried another tactic. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. As country folks settled in and became Mobilians, they began to take an active part in community affairs, the most important of which was Mardi Gras. When the more exclusive mystic societies denied them membership they organized societies of their own and moved off the sidewalks and onto the floats. And in the process they turned Mobile’s Mardi Gras into a family affair.
That’s right. By restraining antisocial activities whenever they could, immigrants from the countryside prevented Mobile’s Mardi Gras from being what New Orleans has become. Though I am told that in the “City By The Bay” young women do occasionally “flash for beads,” it occurs so seldom that it would take years of Mobile Mardi Gras to produce a single “Girls Gone Wild” video. New Orleans? One night, or less.
And because the rural invasion Protestantized as well as democratized Mobile’s celebration, Mardi Gras ceased to be preparation for Lenten penance and became an excuse to party. (Protestants don’t necessarily need an excuse, but it makes us feel better if we have one – spontaneity has never been a denominational characteristic.)
Then Mardi Gras spread out upon the land only to discover that in other communities (Anniston, Gadsden, Talladega for example) people caught in the mid-winter doldrums and needing that necessary excuse to break out a bit, had already taken to Mardi Gras and made it their own – on a limited but no less intense level.
Thus I learned that Mardi Gras was no longer a coastal celebration, no longer a Catholic celebration; it had become an Alabama celebration. And the loop is getting wider. Before long they might be marking Mardi Gras in Minneapolis.
Heck, they might be already.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.