Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the last hurrah before
the Catholic season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. It
also has links to the Christmas season through the period
known as Carnival.
Catholic Roots of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras, literally "Fat Tuesday," has grown
in popularity in recent years as a raucous, sometimes hedonistic
event. But its roots lie in the Christian calendar, as the
"last hurrah" before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
That's why the enormous party in New Orleans, for example,
ends abruptly at midnight on Tuesday, with battalions of streetsweepers
pushing the crowds out of the French Quarter towards home.
What is less known about Mardi Gras is its relation to the
Christmas season, through the ordinary-time interlude known
in many Catholic cultures as Carnival. (Ordinary time, in
the Christian calendar, refers to the normal "ordering"
of time outside of the Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter seasons. There is a fine Scripture
From Scratch article on that topic if you want to learn
Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale,
meaning "farewell to the flesh." Like many Catholic
holidays and seasonal celebrations, it likely has its roots
in pre-Christian traditions based on the seasons. Some believe
the festival represented the few days added to the lunar calendar
to make it coincide with the solar calendar; since these days
were outside the calendar, rules and customs were not obeyed.
Others see it as a late-winter celebration designed to welcome
the coming spring. As early as the middle of the second century,
the Romans observed a Fast of 40 Days, which was preceded
by a brief season of feasting, costumes and merrymaking.
The Carnival season kicks off with the Epiphany, also known
as Twelfth Night, Three Kings' Day and, in the Eastern churches,
Theophany. Epiphany, which falls on January 6, 12 days after
Christmas, celebrates the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts
for the infant Jesus. In cultures that celebrate Carnival,
Epiphany kicks off a series of parties leading up to Mardi
Epiphany is also traditionally when celebrants serve King's
Cake, a custom that began in France in the 12th century. Legend
has it that the cakes were made in a circle to represent the
circular routes that the Wise Men took to find Jesus, in order
to confuse King Herod and foil his plans of killing the Christ
Child. In the early days, a coin or bean was hidden inside
the cake, and whoever found the item was said to have good
luck in the coming year. In Louisiana, bakers now put a small
baby, representing the Christ Child, in the cake; the recipient
is then expected to host the next King Cake party.
There are well-known season-long Carnival celebrations in
Europe and Latin America, including Nice, France; Cologne,
Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The best-known celebration
in the U.S. is in New Orleans and the French-Catholic communities
of the Gulf Coast. Mardi Gras came to the New World in 1699,
when a French explorer arrived at the Mississippi River, about
60 miles south of present day New Orleans. He named the spot Point du Mardi Gras because he knew the holiday was
being celebrated in his native country that day.
Eventually the French in New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras
with masked balls and parties, until the Spanish government
took over in the mid-1700s and banned the celebrations. The
ban continued even after the U.S. government acquired the
land but the celebrations resumed in 1827. The official colors
of Mardi Gras, with their roots in Catholicism, were chosen
10 years later: purple, a symbol of justice; green, representing
faith; and gold, to signify power.
Mardi Gras literally means "Fat Tuesday"
in French. The name comes from the tradition of slaughtering
and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival.
The day is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from "to shrive,"
or hear confessions), Pancake Tuesday and fetter Dienstag.
The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up
fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting and abstinence of Lent
For more on the customs
of Lent, please visit our Lent feature.
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