Growing up in Louisiana, I have always been closely intertwined with the concept of Mardi Gras for a long time now. From attending parades from the back of my grandpa’s truck bed to pigging out on decadent, cream cheese filled king cake, I have been deeply connected to this holiday for as long as I can remember.
However, I never really thought to consider what Mardi Gras itself meant. Not to mention the abundance of symbols it is chock full of, just as Valentine’s Day is to hearts or Easter is to bunnies. After all, the enjoyment was all in the celebration, not learning about history. This is especially true of my mindset as a child; who wants to learn when there’s cake to be had and beads to be caught?
Thankfully now that I am older, I think it is important to learn as much about history as you can. I have a newfound appreciation for it, particularly for the history behind holidays and what their symbolism means.
When you think of Mardi Gras, what are the most prevalent symbols that come to mind? There are quite a few, notably the colors purple, gold and green of course. One that immediately pops up for me, though, are masks. No, not medical masks, but the “Carnevale” masks adorning the faces of parade-goers.
A wide array of holidays also have masks at the forefront of their traditions, such as Dia de Los Muertos, Lunar New Year and Halloween. So what makes Mardi Gras masks all that different?
For one, they are used to make people fully blend into the crowds and immerse or envelop everyone in the spirit of the holiday. No matter who you are behind the mask, you can unleash your inhibitions and not worry about the simple things for a day.
In fact, it is even required to remain in a mask and costume while in a Mardi Gras parade or as part of the krewe in some areas of Louisiana. It makes the experience even more immersive and raises the stakes of each celebration.
This really is not something completely original, though. Despite the Cajun spin on the tradition, wearing masks to seamlessly merge yourself into the crowds is also heavily emphasized during the Carnival of Venice. Venetian masks are some of the most popular and recognizable, and it is obvious that Mardi Gras draws inspiration from them.
There are even entire stores in Louisiana dedicated to masks, most notable of which being Maskarade in New Orleans. Located only a minute away from the St. Louis Cathedral, it is home to a huge selection of Mardi Gras masks.
Even more important than the selling of a product, these masks were a key component throughout Louisiana’s history, of course. You can only imagine this southern state in the 19th century and the even more prevalent presence of white supremacy and segregation.
While wearing masks, people of any race (especially Black Louisianians forced to work on the plantations of southern aristocracy) could be just as absorbed into Mardi Gras and those of lower social class could acquire food too.
Masks may be seen as secretive and mysterious to some for these reasons, but I believe that they only enhance the adventure that is a Mardi Gras celebration. They allow us to free ourselves from our identities that may be dragging us down, and let us assume a different one.
Even if it is only for a day, Mardi Gras and the masks that come along with it are both important parts of Louisianaian culture that define our state. After all, we have to make a name for ourselves too. With just one look at the purple, gold and green of a Mardi Gras mask, Louisiana is recognized.rr