Every year, Mardi Gras falls the day before Ash Wednesday. And this timing is no coincidence. Ash Wednesday marks official beginning of Lent, a period of prayer, fasting, and repentance that Catholics and some other Christians observe before Easter. While today, Catholics commonly abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, in the past, Lenten fasting was far more strict.
“Mardi Gras” is French for Fat Tuesday. The holiday is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from an Old English word meaning to confess) or Pancake Day. Historically, people would spend Fat Tuesday (and sometimes the weeks leading up to it) indulging in the foods (and behaviors) they would abstain from during Lent. Some would also use the day as an opportunity to confess their sins to a priest before the start of Lent. Beyond the fun of it, there was a practical reasoning behind Fat Tuesday feasts — meat and dairy products would go bad before Lent was over. The occasion became one big celebration, sometimes known as Carnival (a word derived from a Latin phrase meaning “to remove meat”).
Fat Tuesday is celebrated in various ways around the world. In New Orleans, Carnival season begins on January 6 — the holiday of Epiphany and the last day of the liturgical season of Christmas — and consists of numerous parades and celebrations. In the UK, Pancake Day celebrations include eating traditional pancakes, as well as perhaps participating in a pancake race. In Rio de Janeiro, Carnival is five days long and consists of music, dancing, parades, and street parties.
The History Channel notes that some historians theorize that the origins of Fat Tuesday are tied to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Lupercalia, which celebrate spring and fertility. However, others suggest that Church reformers may have invented this link in order to dissuade Fat Tuesday debauchery. Some historians believe that the earliest celebrations of Fat Tuesday took place in Rome during the early Christian era, and by the medieval period, the holiday was commonly celebrated throughout Europe — the BBC reports that the practice of confessing sins during the week before Ash Wednesday goes back over 1,000 years. The first known celebration of Mardi Gras in the area which is now the United States took place in 1703 in Fort Louis de la Louisiane (now Mobile, Alabama), and the holiday soon spread to other French settlements, including New Orleans.