Mardi gras: A northern twist on a southern tradition

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 1, 2003

Mardi Gras conjures thought of beads, parties, loud music, rich food and the French Quarter of New Orleans.

And certainly not anything of a church in southeastern Minnesota.

But St. Edward's Church, of Austin, has held a Mardi Gras celebration and fund-raiser for the last 40-some years.

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Albeit, the celebrations are much calmer than those of New Orleans, but in years past the church has put much time and effort into decorating and costumes.

Each year the church has hosted a dinner/dance and a carnival. This year the church scaled back a bit, replacing the dance with a dinner theater. But the carnival is still held.

The carnival is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the Corcoran Center, 2000 W. Oakland St. A roast beef dinner, carnival games and a chance to win door prizes are included in the ticket price. Adults are $6 and children 12 to preschool age are $3. Preschoolers and younger are free.

But Mardi Gras was a much bigger deal in the past, said Sue Ziehauser, a church member and part of the church's hospitality group. The carnival and dinner is still one of its biggest fund-raisers, but the meaning behind the celebration was much more significant.

"Mardi Gras was the last time you were going to have a beer or whatever you gave up (for Lent)," Ziehauser said.

Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter, in which Catholics fast on certain days and do not eat meat on Fridays, used to be more demanding. Fasts were more frequent, not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics use to refrain from meat every day, not just Friday, during Lent.

"It was really strict," Ziehauser said.

A long-held celebration

Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday, actually started before Christianity in ancient Rome. It was incorporated into Christianity once Romans began practicing it, according to historians. It has been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages.

The largest Mardi Gras party in the United States is, of course, held in New Orleans. The tradition there began in 1699 when French explorer Iberville set up camp 60 miles south of where New Orleans is now located on the same day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France.

Masked balls and festivals became a popular way to celebrate Mardi Gras in the 1700s. The first United States Mardi Gras parade occurred in 1837 in New Orleans.

In 1872, the colors purple, gold and green became the official Mardi Gras colors. Purple signifies justice, gold, power and green, faith.

The tradition has stopped and started and evolved over the years. At Mardi Gras today, beads and coins are still thrown and other traditional foods, such as the king cake, are still eaten.

It will be celebrated this Tuesday as the Lenten season begins Wednesday.

A southern connection

In the 1960s at St. Edward's, a parishioner had a friend who worked at the Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans. Each year that friend would send the Mardi Gras costumes from the year before for the church's ball.

"The other parishes had a fall festival and we wanted to do something different," Ziehauser said.

Another hospitality group member, Joanne Aho chuckled.

"We've always been a different group," she said.

Church members decorated Corcoran Center based around a theme. This year's carnival has a Walt Disney theme.

For the event, the men and women would dress up, mask and all, and proceed around the Corcoran Center in a Grand March, Aho said.

"It was always a sell-out," said hospitality group member Jenny Peterson.

Eventually the connection in Louisiana ended, but the church continued its Mardi Gras dinner/dance until last year.

Party planning

Asked if the church knows a good deal about Mardi Gras party planning, Ziehauser laughed.

"The attitude of getting together with friends and just having a good time and getting ready to give up everything for Lent" is the important part of a Mardi Gras celebration, she said.

But the church decorates extensively, drawing life-size images for a 1920s-themed party one year and collecting souvenirs for a Mexican-themed ball another year.

The women in the hospitality committee said it was always a fun time.

"It used to be the event of the year," Peterson said.

But as much fun as it is, it's different from New Orleans' Mardi Gras parties, they insisted.

Ziehauser laughed at the comparison.

"I think it's probably a lot different," she said, smiling. "We're a lot more mellow and tame than they are in Mardi Gras in New Orleans."

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at