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Mardi Gras returns to the islands

By Staff | Feb 3, 2015

Community Housing & Resources Mardi Gras is Feb. 7 at the Dune Golf & Tennis Club. Organizers of the popular event hope to top proceeds from last year’s event. CRAIG GARRETT

The annual Community Housing and Resources Mardi Gras is Saturday Feb. 7, a community event that last year raised some $35,000 for the organization serving the islands.

Now in its third year, Community Housing’s Mardi Gras, presented by Sanibel Captiva Community Bank, brings Fat Tuesday to Sanibel.

It’s not just a fundraiser: Mardi Gras island-style is more like a big community party. Participants are treated to authentic Cajun food (with alternatives for something different), festive music, games, a costume contest, prizes, and Mardi Gras themed fun.

Come in costumeor not. With tickets at only $55 per person, participants can have some authentic Mardi Gras fun while supporting the work of Community Housing in providing affordable housing and services to full-time island workers.

“Sanibel celebrates diversity,” Community Housing board chair Richard Johnson said, “and Community Housing offers everyone, workers and islanders, the opportunity for affordable living. Mardi Gras is a very exciting event.”

As the buzz about CHR’s upcoming Mardi Gras event continues to spread across the islands and beyond, some might wonder about the origins of this fun celebration. Just what is Mardi Gras and why all the hoopla?

Historians say that Mardi Gras dates to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including raucous Roman festivals. When Christianity came to Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions rather than to abolish them altogether. The excess of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, which is the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Like Christianity, Mardi Gras spread from Rome to other European countries, including France, Germany, Spain, and England.

Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the meat, eggs, milk, and cheese that remained in their homes in preparation for eating only fish and otherwise fasting during Lent. In France, the day before Ash Wednesday came to be called “Mardi Gras,” or “Fat Tuesday.” The word “carnival,” another name for the pre-Lenten festivities, may also derive from this custom-in Medieval Latin, “carnelevarium” means to take away or to remove meat.

American Mardi Gras probably originated on March 3, 1699, when the French explorers Iberville and Bienville landed in what is now Louisiana. They held a small celebration and dubbed their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras. New Orleans and other French settlements began marking the holiday with street parties, masked balls, and lavish dinners, though these rituals were banned during the Spanish occupation.

At the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration of 1827, a group of students donned colorful costumes and danced through the streets as they had done in Paris. Ten years later, the first recorded New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place, continuing to this day. Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday.

While the New Orleans Mardi Gras begins on Feb. 14, CHR’s Sanibel version is based more on “Family Gras,” which runs from Feb. 6-8 in New Orleans. The Sanibel event, held on Feb. 7 from 5-9 p.m. at The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club in Sanibel, will feature Cajun-style food, traditional decorations, games, music, dancing, and prizes, offering a family-friendly vibe.


CHR is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1983 in partnership with the city of Sanibel to provide affordable housing for people who live and/or work on the island, plus seniors and people with disabilities. With more than 117 residents occupying 74 rental units and 14 limited-equity ownership homes in 11 complexes throughout the island, CHR is an essential resource for those who provide the services all islanders want to enjoy.

CHR residents contribute in numerous ways to island life and often volunteer for or lead island organizations. CHR depends on $100,000 in community support each year to help cover ongoing maintenance of CHR buildings and grounds. The Mardi Gras party was inaugurated in 2013, with the goal of becoming a signature event to raise funds essential for maintenance, refurbishment, and repair of buildings and grounds operated by CHR.

Rents are structured to be affordable based on tenants’ incomes, and rental income does not always cover the cost of keeping the properties in good order.

CHR executive director Kelly Collini said: “To balance our budget, we need to count on community support each year of approximately $100,000, so the Mardi Gras has become a vital part of our annual fund raising.”

Talking points

At a board retreat in early 2013, the following talking points were proposed as basic to understanding why a community should support affordable housing:

* Sanibel’s economy depends on the hundreds of people who provide services through island retail and other businesses;

* Living on the island removes the stress and high cost of a long daily commute;

* Workers who live on the island can be available at short notice;

* Social and economic diversity is a priority for Sanibel and a part of The Sanibel Plan;

* We all benefit when our island work force lives in the community and participates in schools, churches and community events;

* No one should have to leave a familiar community because of age, disability or lack of finances;

* CHR is a hand up. It provides an affordable home for 150 island residents in 10 rental complexes and 14 limited-equity ownership homes throughout the island.