In Praise of the Carnival

As soon as I stepped out of my apartment Easter morning, I saw my upstairs neighbor, Consuelo, relaxing on her balcony. She and I have worked out a barter economy, cigarettes being the chief commodity. I asked if she could spare one, and she tossed one down. As she did, she asked, “Where are you going, looking so pretty?”

Her question troubled me. Should it really have taken a Sherlock Holmes to make the inference that if a guy is dressed in shirt and tie on an Easter Sunday morning, he’s probably going to church?

I told Consuelo exactly where I was going. She told me to pray for her, proving she had some notion of what goes on inside churches. That mollified me, but only a little.

My parish church is about two and a half miles from my house, a straight shot, more or less, down a residential street of slightly worn mid-century houses well shaded by mesquite and olive trees. The morning was brilliant, with the temperature still in the low 70s. But not long after I set out, I sensed something missing. Where were the women in Minnie Pearl hats, the men in too-tight suits with squares of toilet paper damming up their shaving cuts? Arizona belongs to red-state America, to real America. For all the fuss anyone was making, I might as well have been living in Manhattan or Gomorrah.

A couple miles in the opposite direction is the Tempe Town Lake, a park built around a section of the Salt River bed filled and dammed by the city fathers. Almost every weekend, they fence off the part closest to Mill Avenue for some special event — the Fiesta Bowl party, the New Year’s Eve party, the Iron Man triathlon, the Fourth of July. Every Christmas it plays host to the City of Tempe’s Fantasy of Lights Boat Parade. As I walked the quiet streets, I found my mind drifting to the strollers and picnickers and pelican-feeders who were filling the lakefront promenade with sound and color.

That’s when it hit me: the hidden cost of secularization is the complete separation of religious observance from fun. Whenever some holiday looms, we believers face a barrage of reminders that He, not the bearded or fuzzy holiday character, not the leg of lamb or glass of eggnog, is the reason for the season. These days, it seems to be taken for granted that the two are locked in a zero-sum game. When, for South Park’s pilot episode, Trey Parker and Matt Stone had Jesus and Santa pummelling each other over pride of place, they reflected the spirit of the age.

Maybe secularization isn’t the sole reason the uncircumcised are supposed to be the only ones enjoying themselves. Maybe America’s puritan heritage should get a share of the blame. Psychologist Frans de Waal, hailing from a region of the Netherlands that somehow escaped the reformation, recalls that the Catholicism of his youth was informed by a “bon vivant attitude to life.” It seemed to him a holdover from the “Carnival atmosphere” reproduced on canvas by Breughel and Bosch. He makes it clear, by the way, that the crowds whooped despite “reproductive restrictions.”

Where it does exist, carnvial has a certain catechetical value. Even if only a tiny percentage of Mardi Gras revelers wake up the next morning and receive their ashes (after counting their beads), at least the idea’s there, somewhere in the ether. I’ve seen footage of Italian villagers celebrating the feast day of St. Maria Goretti with a motorcycle rally. Church attendance among Italians having fallen to 30%, a fair number of the bikers must have had only the dimmest idea of why they were gunning through town, but they would probably have known they weren’t doing it for, say, Amanda Knox.

That argument might sound strained, but these days, like I said, any promoter of holiday abandon is stuck grasping at straws. (When Fr. Jim Martin, who could not be mistaken for Bill Donahue if the two were dug up from the same nuclear blast site, starts thundering against commercialism and indulgence, you can’t say, “Hey, lighten up,” and leave it at that.) So let’s agree to this: even if vestiges of the old pagan orgies don’t bring people closer to the God of Israel, they don’t have to tear people away.

A few days before my baptism, my sponsor and I agreed that we would cap off Easter Vigil with an after-party. Because he, then a graduate assistant, was just squeaking by financially (and because I knew too well what a handful I’d been as a candidate), I volunteered to supply the refreshments. On Holy Saturday, after the morning RCIA retreat, I drove us to the Bev-Mo at Tempe Marketplace, and we proceeded to fill a shopping cart.

During those 20-odd minutes, I felt an electric current of anticipation — for the party, certainly, but also for my admission to the Church’s sacramental life. In my primitive understanding, the two complemented one another, formed — you’ll pardon the expression — a kind of seamless garment. Some of my fondest memories of my sponsor include the shy smile that crept over his face when I asked whether he, too, were a Ketel One man, and the sigh that escaped him at the mention of Smithwick’s. That night, making ourselves blotto toasting the Resurrection, we had us an ad hoc carnival.

Ad hoc carnivals are great — probably the Church’s best-kept secret. But I do wonder whether that furtiveness might mar our image, by making us look like a bunch of wet blankets. I used to roll my eyes at World Youth Day and Christian rock. Now I’m starting to understand. Warning against the naked public square is fine, but perhaps, for its contribution to that square, the Church would do well to propose — well, not getting naked, exactly, but something noisy and chaotic. If last summer’s Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day accomplished anything, it proved Christians of all denominations could combine activism and good-natured breast-beating without setting off on a pogrom.

The 11:00 Mass turned out to be joyful and reverent and even grand. Out of nowhere, our music ministry had grown a brass section, which opened the hymns with voluntaries that made them sound like the Star Wars theme song. Feeling pumped, I took the long way home. When I passed a Target, it occurred to me to stop and buy a bottle of water.

Just as I noticed the sign reading, “Closed for Easter Sunday,” I heard a voice shout: “Young man! Sir! Is the store really closed?”

Turning toward the parking lot, I saw a white-haired woman in a Lincoln Town Car. “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “It is. Closed for Easter.”

“For what? Oh, for Easter,” she said. “Well, how am I going to get my prescription filled?”

I told her it would be open again tomorrow, and I felt for her. But I also wondered how she might enjoy lingering, black-draped, at the edge of some rowdy festival, watching as young swains set upon one another with stilettos and dragged maidens off to the haystacks. Would that have counted as a kind of medicine?

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Five Reasons I Despise Listicles
In Praise and Defense of Catechists
  • Manny

    I’ve had that same insight between secularization and holidays, though I don’t think America’s puritan heritage really has anything to do with today’s state of affairs. Puritanism’s last gasp was prohibition. Another thing that seems to be going out is Catholic processions. Have you ever been to an Italian procession of a saint’s feast day, complete with a statue and costume and money spilling off the statue? If you haven’t, you can probably catch it on mafia film…isn’t that ironic…lol.

    This was an excellent blog. Max, don’t mean to feed your ego, but I got to say you’re the best and most interesting writer here on Catholic Patheos.

    [All I can say is, I swing for the fences with every piece I write. When I know I whiff, it bothers me for days. When I get ahold of one, I feel relief more than anything. So thanks for the relief!]

  • DWiss

    Max, a question: How do you know when you whiff?

    As for the topic at hand, which is the secularization of holidays (holy days), the most crowded masses at my parish are on Christmas and Easter. Standing room only until after communion. Then you can sit anywhere you want. I don’t understand the urge to attend mass on those days when you skip most Sundays during the year. It might be because your limited experience tells you that mass is overcrowded, hot, long and the people there barely know when to sit, stand or kneel. And that girls/women between the ages of 14 and 35 dress like they’re at a nightclub (oops, I’m a prude). So, not a very holy experience.

    I was an RCIA sponsor this year, and so attended the Saturday night vigil. Now that’s the Easter celebration you want to go to. The only people who are there really want to be there. C’mon, it’s 2.5 hours long. But when the lights of the church are finally lit and the choir sings the Gloria…that’s celebrating the Resurrection the right way. And with almost no cocktail dresses.

  • Cherie

    This year I took my teen daughter and niece to downtown New Orleans for Mardi Gras day. As normal there were fringe Christian groups protesting the goings on with signs and bullhorns. The girls were thrilled. Before they had only ever been taken to the family friendly sections of uptown or the suburbs. The protesters had lists of the people going to hell. Catholics were on the list of evil doers along with abortionist, fornicators and homosexuals. They enjoyed learning that other Christians thought of them as scary, evil sinners more than they enjoyed the parade. Maybe that is one way to get young people to church. Remind them that they stand outside the world of “respectable” Christians. Catholics can throw the party and invite the pagans on Tuesday then happily go to church on Wednesday knowing we are sinners in need of a savior.
    BTW, it was really a PG-13 event. We saw a few wild costumes and many drunks, all happy. One tried to pick up my 70 year old mother. She handled him beautifully and with great respect (she is such southern lady). Other than that it was all beads and marching bands and friendly faces.

  • Scuffy the Tugboat

    Hey Max, you and Josef Pieper speak with one voice. That is some good company to keep! I recommend his “In Tune with the World – A Theory of Festivity” and the companion volume, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture.”

    [Yeah, but Pieper has a cuter name than mine. So, come to think of it, do you.]

  • Victor

    (((Where were the women in Minnie Pearl hats, the men in too-tight suits with squares of toilet paper damming up their shaving cuts?)))

    There’s a lot more that got my attention here but long story short, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    God Bless