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Image of Mary infront of a Mardigra flag

Mary and Mardi Gras: A Louisiana Perspective

By Elise Abshire and Hunter Doiron

What do the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mardi Gras have in common? Our Lady is a symbol of purity, but our cultural understanding of Mardi Gras so often portrays the festivities as the exact opposite of purity.

However, by understanding its original meaning along with just some of the basic symbols of Mardi Gras, like the King Cake and its colors, one can see that it is much more of a Catholic holiday than expected and therefore coherent with Mary’s life and as aspirations for us, her children.

As we prepare for Lent, Mardi Gras offers an opportunity for the community to come together to feast as a sign of unity before entering the desert with Jesus. Mary, our Mother, always works to intercede for us to her Son, so this unifying celebration of Mardi Gras can be restored back to its Catholic significance by recognizing how Mary similarly draws our community together and toward Jesus.

Each year Mardi Gras has a new date, and this year it falls early on Feb. 13. Still, as the French name suggests, “Fat Tuesday” always falls on a Tuesday. Particularly, it is always the day before Ash Wednesday, which is 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays.

Easter, whose date is always the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox, determines the dates of Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras. These 40 days prior to Easter are the liturgical season of Lent, which involves dedicated time to prayer, fasting and almsgiving as Catholics enter the desert with Jesus to prepare for His resurrection.

Because Lent involves fasting, “Fat Tuesday,” also as the name suggests, has been a way for the community to come together and feast before the fasting. From something so simple yet significant as the day it is celebrated, Mardi Gras is really a Catholic holiday.

Still, even a Louisiana Catholic might give a raised eyebrow to the idea of finding religious meaning in our prodigal Mardi Gras celebrations. It is true at times that the religious meaning seems more and more hidden in our current culture. However, does this circumstance mean that Catholics must avoid this seemingly irreconcilable festival?

King Cake

Covered in icing and purple-, green- and gold-colored sprinkles, King Cake certainly represents the richness of diet that is given up during Lent. Hidden in the middle of the cake is a plastic baby. This small baby represents the infant Jesus, and the whole cake represents the Epiphany story of the three Magi.

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.

He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.

They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way (Matthew 2: 8-12).

When the Magi entered the stable, they saw baby Jesus with Mary, his mother. Mary had just given birth to the one prophesied to be the savior of the world and the Magi made a long journey to adore and worship him. The king cake reminds us of the Magi’s route taken on the way back from adoring the baby Jesus to avoid King Herod because of the warning received in a dream. This cake is a beautiful representation of liturgical living in the Epiphany and Mardi Gras season. 

Colors: Purple, Green, Gold

Mardi Gras unites all under a purple, green and gold umbrella — literally at times during the New Orleans parades. In 1837, these colors were chosen and given specific meaning related to religion. We have purple for the virtue of justice, green representing the virtue of faith, and gold to illustrate the power of God.

These colors have also been used to represent the gifts the Magi brought to the baby Jesus with purple representing myrrh, green for frankincense and gold for the gold.

Although many will mention the debauchery of this celebration, there are communities of Catholics that attend these celebrations. From our own memories while studying at Louisiana State University, our Catholic center on campus was always ready to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Each Lundi Gras — Monday, the day before Mardi Gras — we would have a group of about 50 or 60 people from the center stake out a spot at one of the parade routes, and we would celebrate all day. This included priests dancing in the streets, communal rosaries at the break between parades, little kids on tall stands ready to catch beads, and lots of laughter.

None of this was “unwholesome” as is usually thought. Yet, instead, this time created a unity in our group to be able to return to Baton Rouge and attend daily Mass together with a greater fervor. Even more, on the hour-long ride to New Orleans or even while waiting for the parades, it was not uncommon for small groups of this community to be praying the rosary, invoking Our Lady in the celebrations.

Now, it seems to us that this is a great part of liturgical living; it involves the feasting and the fasting. Mary was a part of the feasting aspect just as she can be a part of the fasting aspect. For example, our Catholic devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary includes moments like her Son’s carrying of the Cross, the Crucifixion, Jesus being taken down from the Cross, and Him laid in the tomb which are all immense moments of painful patience for Mary. Therefore, she also remains present with us through intercession as we prepare to fast and patiently await Easter Sunday.


Besides this popular devotion of the college crew, there are also numerous fleur-de-lis images found at Mardi Gras. The image symbolized purity for the ancient French monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church adopted the image for Our Lady.

For Catholics, the fleur-de-lis can also represent the Holy Trinity with Mary. Each leaflet can represent a person of the Trinity, and the bracket joining them together represents Mary through the medieval formulary of daughter of the Father, mother of the Son and spouse of the Holy Spirit.

This Marian symbol is also associated with “the lily among thorns” image from the Song of Solomon. Finally, the emblem represents royalty, not just the French monarchy but for Mary’s title: Queen of Heaven.

Louisiana’s rich Catholic history along with its devotion to Mary offers a solution to Cajun Catholics and any others hoping to join in the exciting celebration of Mardi Gras. Our 2024 Marian Forum presenters, Karen Park and Katherine Dugan, co-editors of American Patroness: Marian Shrines and the Making of U.S. Catholicism, offer an insightful point for our Marian/Louisiana/Mardi Gras connection.

Though they do not mention it explicitly, New Orleans is home to the National Votive Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. All around this shrine of Louisiana’s patron saint are decorative fleurs-de-lis which are commonplace also around all of Louisiana. Culturally, the fleur-de-lis takes on a symbol of unity through our New Orleans Saints football team, Louisiana sportsman images, rod iron fencing, etc., and in French Catholic Louisiana history, it also bears the deeply Marian symbolism as described which is also a source of unity.

Both Mardi Gras celebrations and Marian Shrines use sensory, outward signs and symbols to reveal the significance of what unifies a certain community socially and religiously, respectively. Whether it’s a sweet king cake or a beautifully decorated image of Our Lady, these common experiences bring unity and identity to Louisiana culture. The Catholic symbolism used in Marian Shrines can offer a retrieval of the originally Catholic meaning of Mardi Gras amidst potential secularism.

Louisiana has a rich French Catholic history of communally revering Mary, such as, asking for Our Lady of Prompt Succor to intercede and keep the Gulf South safe during hurricane season. Of course, Mary’s primary concern for us is always to bring us closer to her Son. Therefore, as we begin this Lenten journey in the desert with her Son, let us be reminded of the unifying hope that she and Mardi Gras offer as we experience His love through communal prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Elise Abshire is a doctoral student in Theology, and Hunter Doiron is a master’s student in Theological Studies in the UD Department of Religious Studies.

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