I have an employee, Raslan, who is Muslim, and on Ash Wednesday this week (Feb. 12th) he asked me when Mardi Gras was and what it means. He had asked a customer, who told him it was always the second Tuesday in February. Nononono! I said.
I said, you have to count backwards from Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is where I start to get into trouble, since already I may be having to explain “Easter” and “equinox”.
So whenever Easter is, you count back 40 days or so to Wednesday and that is Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. Oh no. Here I go again–“Lent”. But Raslan got that part when I said that Lent is like Ramadan. Thanks to him, I understand Ramadan a lot better than I ever did before.
Ramadan is a month in the Islamic lunar calendar, during which the faithful are required to fast from sunrise to sunset–although that may not correspond to actual sunrise or sunset since those times are different all over the world. The times are therefore set by the Imam in charge of your particular area of the world, in this case, the Imam in charge of North America. In addition to fasting, it’s supposed to be a time of contemplation and rededication to devotion to God. It’s followed by a three-day feast called Eid al-Fitr. In other words, Muslims do their partying after the period of self-denial, whereas Christians do it beforehand. Of course, Muslims celebrate with food, since no drinking of alcohol is allowed. A spectacle such as Bourbon street on Mardi Gras day is unthinkable.
So Raslan also got the part about Easter being after the first full moon, etc., because it resonates with the lunar calendar aspect of the Islamic calendar.
When I say “Mardi Gras day”, I’m referring to the fact that in practice, most people call what is technically “carnival season”, Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is in fact only one day (Fat Tuesday), but the entire period is from January 6th to whenever Mardi Gras is. January 6th being Epiphany, aka, King’s Day. And the period before that (December 25th to January 5th) is Christmas–the twelve days of. Fortunately I did not have to go that far back in my explanation. I only had to go as far as Mardi Gras. Otherwise, I would have been in even more trouble.
Raslan is an extremely intelligent person, but you can imagine how confusing this all was for him. He thanked me, but informed me that when he got home, he was still going to have to look it up on the Internet. Ha! I understand that completely.
I’m also grateful that I didn’t have to explain why these traditions exist. That would be a lot harder than just saying when they occur.
At the end of the conversation, he asked me what the meaning was of the ashes on the forehead, and what sort of pattern it was supposed to be. Several of his customers had come through with that mark. I said, “It’s a cross”. As for its meaning, I said, “I think it signifies that you have atoned for, and been forgiven for your sins–but I’m going to have to look that up on the Internet”.