What comes to mind when you think of Mardi Gras? Beads? Fried dough? Massive hangovers? This celebration has more than earned its rep as a wild party in cities like New Orleans, Venice, and Rio de Janeiro, but the holiday on which Mardi Gras is based, Fat Tuesday, didn't start out that way. Yes, partying and delicious foods were always part of it — but it's a little more complicated than that.
At its most basic, Fat Tuesday is the day in the Roman Catholic calendar that precedes Ash Wednesday, which kicks off Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. During that time, Catholics (and the few Protestants who celebrate Lent) are expected to prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with prayer, fasting, and even abstinence.
With that in mind, Fat Tuesday was treated like one last chance to get those urges out of your system before Lent. While that could mean enjoying a few pints and a couple crullers, most Christians actually spent the day confessing. Shrove Tuesday, another name for Fat Tuesday, actually refers to the process of a priest hearing a confession and forgiving someone of their sins. The idea was that you'd be best prepared for Lent if you had already repented for all your missteps.
Public celebrations of Fat Tuesday started in Medieval Europe, but Mardi Gras arrived in the United States in the late 1600s with the first French explorers in Louisiana. As you might have guessed, these festivities were notably smaller than the balls-out parties we know today. The first official Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837, and it's only grown in popularity since then.
So, that's Fat Tuesday's Christian history in a nutshell, but that's not where its origins end. As we've seen with other Christian holidays, we must trace Fat Tuesday's roots back to the Pagans of ancient Rome. The festival day Lupercalia was held in honor of fertility and the bounty of spring. People celebrated by drinking, dancing, sacrificing animals, and enjoying the occasional orgy. Theories abound as to how heavily Lupercalia actually influenced Fat Tuesday celebrations (some would argue not at all), but the similarities are undeniable.