Today is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, my first one in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country. I can honestly say that I've never seen anything quite like this before in my life.
The past month the carnival-type atmosphere has been ever so slowly building to this huge peak of crazed excitement. Newspapers are filled with pictures of grown women decked out in gaudy garments ... feathers and sequins galore. They give themselves titles ... queen, lady-in-waiting, ambassador and the like. They claim to hail from foreign, often mystical, lands and bring with them bizarre gifts. They band together in Krewes, hosting magnificent parties on a scale like none I've ever known before.
Everyone eats King cake, a scrumptious cinnamon-roll type dessert which can be filled with an astounding number of puddings, creams, fruits and other such fillings. We ate them in north Louisiana, but not in the same manner as our southern Louisiana brothers and sisters. All I can say is that these people are serious about their King cake.
Sweet Meg wanted to buy us all King cake for Mardi Gras. Her precious little arms flung around me in a giant hug and she said, "GiGi, how can we have Mardi Gras without a King cake?" I didn't bother to tell her that we don't celebrate Mardi Gras. Instead, we took her $15 and headed out to fight the holiday traffic. Meche's Donut King is the local bakery that is the home of Lafayette's best King cake. As we neared the shop, we could see that the business was crowded. Cars crawled in and out of the street to get into the minuscule parking lot which was teeming like a knocked-down anthill with people making a steady stream in and out of the store.
(Forgive me, but I must make a quick side note. Why is it that popular, local places must always have tiny parking areas and be located in the most out of the way places? For business success, I would suggest that one find a small, dark, hole-in-the-wall sort of building with no parking area to speak of and set up shop there!)
Back at Meche's Donut King, the kids and I had no problem finding the section of King cakes. In fact, there was absolutely no missing the gigantic tower of boxes. There must have been 50 varieties. Customers grabbed 3 and 4 boxes at a time, one of this flavor and another of that. They offered helps to each other ..."I've got a Bavarian creme over here!" and "Has anyone seen a blueberry cream cheese? That's my son's favorite and I promised him I'd bring one of those home." As we stood in the middle of that scene in a dazed sort of awe, Joel whispered in a shocked tone, "Look at the way these people are snatching up King cakes ... I guess they take the name Fat Tuesday literally!"
In the chaos, I searched in vain for a sign telling how much King cakes cost. Finally, I had no choice but to get into the long checkout line at the counter and talk to one of the clerks, who were checking out King cakes so fast that it made my head whirl. After several long minutes, I got my chance to ask ... $22 for one small King cake. Meg looked so sad, but we all quickly reassured her that just she couldn't afford the king of King cakes didn't mean that we couldn't find a more affordable option. True to our word, we somehow managed to find a cheaper version of this highly prized dessert. Perhaps it wasn't the king of King Cakes, but we all enjoyed the fact that at the Target bakery we could afford to bring home two different varieties and still have money to spare.
King cake by itself doesn't do a true Mardi Gras celebration justice. Parades are another huge part of the culture, and there has been no shortage of parades during the past week. Most days there are two or three parades, blocking off streets and piling up traffic for hours. Jon and I took the kids to the Queen's parade, which is supposed to be one of the biggest and nicest parades. Floats rolled by, filled with children and adults in elaborate costumes. Beads and cups flung everyone as people yelled, "Throw me something!"
As the kids rushed around madly collecting the loot, Jon leaned over and whispered, "This is a great place to come get cups! It's all free, and now we won't have to go out and buy any!" That's certainly a man's perspective. I wouldn't exactly call plastic Mardi Gras cups the sort of thing I want to store in my kitchen cabinets and pull out for our dinner guests to use.
The kids enjoyed the parade, but as we walked back they all lamented that their necks hurt from the weight of the beads. Joel, the only one who chose not to wear his beads and instead lugged them in a bulging plastic grocery sack, commented, "You get so many beads at these Mardi Gras parades that it practically makes you a hoarder!"
I couldn't help but sort of agree with him, not about the beads so much but about the over-the-top opulence and the excessive grandeur. I can't see how any of this makes my relationship with Christ stronger. In fact, it seems so directly opposed to the things that Christ commands us to do ... give to the needy and help those in need. I imagine that the amount of money spent on meaningless things (float decorations, beads and plastic cups, costumes laden with sequins and feathers) was staggering. This doesn't even include the money spent by families on carnival rides, cotton candy, purple and green and gold t-shirts or hats or wigs. I am quite certain that the amount of money spent in Lafayette alone would have fully funded the adoption of several of the special needs orphans (like these at Reese's Rainbow). That money could have feed the hungry, clothed the poor, purchased Bibles for those without.
Beginning tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, there will be much sacrifice for the 40 days of Lent and while I understand the importance of learning to fast (from food or entertainment or other pleasures) for a period of time in order to seek a deeper relationship with God. Certainly, I do not doubt the sincerity of those who give up something for Lent. I am sure it can be a meaningful part of preparing one's heart for the glory of Easter Sunday. And yet I struggle to find the meaning in the extravagant celebrations before the season of sacrifice.
On the way home last night, I felt sort of sick at my stomach, wondering how something that was probably in the beginning intended for spiritual good turned into something so lacking in the things of Christ. I'm still not sure how I feel about it all, but this is where I live and so I expect that I'll be learning to live with the feverish celebration of Mardi Gras for quite some time. I can't help but recall the words of King Solomon in Proverbs 21:3 ... "to do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice."
But last night God spoke in His ever quiet voice ... "Paige, remember that I am a Master at taking something and creating it new again, for beads can be redeemed and turned into something far better." My children and I will be collecting Mardi Gras beads for charity, giving back something meaningless that was thrown away in hopes that it can be turned jewels that we can thrown down before my Savior's feet.
...fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:
“You are worthy, O Lord,
To receive glory and honor and power;
For You created all things,
And by Your will they exist and were created.”
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)