What do you do the day after Mardi Gras?
In Philadelphia and Seattle, you clear away broken glass, gather up empty tear gas containers, and wash the blood of drunken revelers off of ransacked streets. People acted like "wild animals," according to a Philadelphia councilman on the day after rioting, looting and fires broke out on both coasts this week. The nightly news showed footage of public bacchanalias in both towns that rivaled the golden calf scene in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." Participants threw off their inhibitions and threw out respect for themselves, public decency, and the law.
The Philadelphia Daily News reports that even moms got in on the act: "A 28-year old from South Philly bared her chest in front of her 7-year-old son and husband because 'my husband told me to. It was fun, it was scary and it was crazy.'" Police, who were assaulted with bottles, made more than 200 arrests. In the Emerald City, teenage boys reportedly raced from one display of breasts to another. Brawls erupted throughout downtown Seattle, escalating into physical confrontations with overwhelmed cops. One person died and at least 40 people were hospitalized. Local businesses suffered an estimated $100,000 in damages.
So what, you say? Isn't that what Mardi Gras is all about, anyway? Actually, no.
Long before camcorders were invented to tape the violent, lewd and depraved acts of modern revelers, Mardi Gras was a festival legitimized by the Roman Catholic Church. In New Orleans, home of Mardi Gras, the celebrations begin on Jan. 6. No, bar owners and travel agents didn't just happen to pick that day. It's a date of biblical significance -- the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany, the day on which the three wise men, who had followed a star to Bethlehem, first visited the newborn Jesus Christ.
The official Mardi Gras day (French for "Fat Tuesday") doesn't just occur on any random Tuesday. It falls every year on the day before Ash Wednesday -- the first day of the holy season of Lent. For Catholics and other Christians, Lent is a solemn time of penance and sacrifice. We give up some indulgence or luxury during the Lenten period to commemorate the 40 days of prayer and fasting of Jesus. The original idea of a Mardi Gras carnival (which is Latin for "farewell to meat") was not to engage in gratuitous acts of debauchery, but to stock up on food before self-imposed lean times.
Sensational press coverage of this year's Mardi Gras excesses overshadows the deeply religious context in which Mardi Gras used to be celebrated. The day after Mardi Gras, millions of Catholics went to Mass to receive ashes smudged on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality. How many newspaper editors and TV news producers -- you know, the ones who are always yakking about how much they value diversity -- sent reporters to cover Ash Wednesday celebrations in their
There were no riots, no fires, no bare breasts. Just peaceful worshipers engaged in centuries-old traditions, exercising their faith and showing humility. "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." It's the message we heard on Ash Wednesday while the wild animals washed the soot and ashes of the Mardi Gras riots off their faces and laughed as the evening news glorified their exploits.