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The Story of Mardi Gras’ Christian Roots

Obviously, you won’t be seeing the usual Mardi Gras posts today. Even if the pandemic hadn’t made the official celebration ill-advised, New Orleans near-freezing temperatures will render the usual celebration un-observable. No parades. No parties.

And in a way, maybe that’s for the best. Because while Mardi Gras is usually seen as an American excuse to indulge decadence (as if Americans need an excuse) the holiday’s history might get a rare chance to shine for once. And that history is far more religious than we usually recognize.

Mardi Gras is French for ‘Fat Tuesday.’

Mardi Gras is the final day of the festivities known as Carnival and is celebrated in predominately Catholic locations around the world—most famously in cities such as New Orleans and Rio de Jainaro.

The Latin root of the word Carnival is carne vale, which means “farewell to meat” — a reference to the upcoming 40-day fast of Lent that commences at midnight on Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday was named because it was a time of extravagant feasting of rich foods such as meat or pancakes before the upcoming fast.

According the Catholic calendar, the season of Carnival actually starts on the 12th day of Christmas, known as Epiphany. Epiphany, which is January 6 each year, is seen as the day in which God revealed himself to the world through Jesus Christ.

Fat Tuesday is also know as Shrove Tuesday, a reference to “shriving” or confession, which was meant to prepare Christians for the fast ahead. Some communities use Shrove Tuesday to burn palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to create the ashes that are used on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of penitence and fasting that leads to Good Friday and Easter, a solemn observance when many Christians receive ashes on the foreheads and are reminded that “they are dust and to dust they shall return.”

Mardi Gras, a bit like Easter and Christmas, is disputed in its Christian origins.

Like there are “pagan” elements to both Christmas (Christmas trees) and Easter (the Easter bunny), Mardi Gras can most directly trace its roots to pagan celebrations of spring time and fertility. History also suggests that before a period of fasting each year, Romans would spend a day overindulging in the things they would have to give up during their fast.

For Catholics, Fat Tuesday started a feast that was thrown to use up all the food in the house that could not be eaten during Lent, like oil, butter, meat and eggs. Better to eat it all on one day than to let it go to waste!

Like with Christmas and Easter, early Christians took existing pagan celebrations and overlaid religious remembrances.

Catholics see this season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday as ‘Ordinary Time.’

Though Mardi Gras conjures up pictures of excess and sinfulness, Ordinary Time for the Catholic church is understood as a season of growth and maturing. It symbolizes, in some sense, the life of Christ (as opposed to the seasons celebrating His life and death). It is the period between Christmas and Easter in which one learns to embody the life of Christ by dying to one’s self.

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So what does all of this mean for Christians?

It’s pretty clear a lot of what we have come to expect of Mardi Gras, the Bible clearly teaches are things to avoid, because they are not good for our relationship with God or with other people (drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, etc.).

Yet, there is something beautiful about the season of Ordinary Time leading up to Mardi Gras. It’s easy for us to celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter because we have made really big events out of Jesus’ birth and resurrection.

But if we’re honest, we often have a harder time celebrating the life of Jesus, even though it encompasses the majority of Jesus life. What would it look like if the Church was more intentional to embody the life of Jesus in all of the “ordinary” times in life?

Mardi Gras may have grown to represent more than the beginning of a season of fasting, but we have the choice as the Church to take these moments, these times like Mardi Gras, to reflect on the life of Jesus — it’s actually an opportunity to live not for our basest desires, but following the way of Christ.

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