Mardi Gras masks come on display

The Mardi Gras celebration always starts on Epiphany Sunday and will end this year on Tuesday, March 5. Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday is historically a day of feasting, drinking and partying before the lean season of self-denial begins the Christian Lenten season. For many years, this was a holiday exclusive to New Orleans but now has spread elsewhere.

Since the early 1700s Mardi Gras has been a major party laced with mystery and magic in New Orleans and part of that celebration was the wearing of masks. Masked partiers during Mardi Gras has often been controversial and has been banned at times. Today the masks are restricted to the one evening celebration on Fat Tuesday instead of the entire season. The masks can be works of art and quite elaborate thus making them a great collectible for those who are enamored by this yearly event.

The original purpose of the masks was to protect the identities of beggars who went door to door asking for ingredients for a communal gumbo. Of course, it took a turn when it was upgraded to protect revelers’ identities as they engaged in adult misbehavior. Hence the restrictions over the years. Now the masks are worn by the party organizers known as Krewes, by ball guests and by party goers of all classes on Fat Tuesday.

The three traditional colors of gold (power), green (faith) and purple (justice) often adorn the masks. Along with the trinity of colors are three basic designs of the masks, the conical dunce style hats, animal masks and mitres to copy clerical officials’ headgear. They can be made from plastic, wire, cardboard, feathers, beads, ceramic or even porcelain — it all depends on the purse of the owner as to how elaborate they become. The masks often mock society or act as a satire on issues of the day as people show opinions not normally considered acceptable to society. Everyone is nameless and faceless so all issues are fair game without repercussions.

Prices of these interesting collectibles are all over the place. Like many things the more elaborate and intricate the design the more expensive it will tend to be. Also, how well it has been preserved will be an issue so condition should be considered. As the day of festivals, parades, parties and lavish dinners approaches take note of the interesting masks and perhaps you will want to enter this venue of collectibles.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.