Closer Readings Commentary

Mardi Gras ~ masks and more!

Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once. – Chris Rose, 1Dead in the Attic

Carnivals are of ancient origin and virtually all peoples in all eras have organized carnivals to mark or celebrate different events. Carnivals can be magical, political, satirical, or purely entertaining; some even poke fun at death. In the Catholic tradition, Carnaval refers to the riotous festival atmosphere and feasting that goes on during the days leading up to the beginning of Lent. This year, Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday falls on February 12th. "Fat Tuesday" or "Pancake Tuesday" as it is sometimes called, carries a tradition of making pancakes for supper. In this way, all the rich items in one's larder (eggs,sugar and butter) get used up before the lenten season of fasting commences. This last hurrah of feasting and play occurs on the eve of Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter.

In many carnivals, and certainly in Mardi Gras, masks are key ingredients of the public spectacle. The prominence of masquerading devils during Carnival is understood by many as an ancient reference to the contest between good and evil. See EDSITEment K–2 Lesson The Meaning behind the Mask, where students explore the cultural significance of masks. After recalling some of the contexts in which masks are worn in the United States including Mardi Gras, students discuss the use of masks in stories. Students then investigate the role masks play in ceremonies and on special occasions in various African cultures. For older elementary and middle school students, EDSITEment offers What Masks Reveal. In this lesson, students explore the cultural significance of masks by investigating the role they play in ceremonies and on special occasions in societies from widely separated regions of the world. They then reflect on masking behavior in American society, such as Mardi Gras celebrations.

For use with older students, EDSITEment reviewed Poetry-Foundation has a number of poems with masks as a central image:

Carnival by Rebecca Lindenberg : The Poetry Foundation

We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar : The Poetry Foundation

Winter Mask by Allen Tate : The Poetry Foundation

Additional background on the history of the Mardi Gras festival is available from the History Channel.. For insight into how Mardi Gras masks figure in the traditional island culture of Puerto Rico, turn to A Vision of Puerto Rico: Carnival, an EDSITEment-reviewed site from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

These resources from the National Endowment for the Humanities include activities and images for use in the classroom:

American Experience

Mardi Gras Indians | Entries | KnowLA, Encyclopedia of Louisiana

NEH on the Road travelling exhibit: iCarnaval!

Museum of International Folk Art; Museum Hill, Santa Fe - iCarnaval!