In French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday as a last “fling” prior to the 40 days of Lent which precede Easter. Lent is a word that comes from the Middle English word “lente” which means “springtime” – so named for the season of the year in which it usually occurs. While the practice of Lent is not mentioned in the Bible, it has been a tradition in the Christian world since the mid 4th century. It seems to parallel the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness that Jesus experienced following his baptism.
Historically, Lenten fasting became mandatory, especially abstinence from eating meat. While recommended by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in 330 AD, by the Middle Ages Lent was enforced throughout Europe, especially the forbidding of meat during the final weeks before Easter.
The word “carnival” comes from an old Italian word that means to “go without meat” or “removal of meat.” Festivals like Mardi Gras sprang up throughout parts of Europe as a means to prepare for the coming times of self-denial. Venice especially was a “party town” for centuries with its Carnevale di Venezia and it’s elaborate masks. The three days before Ash Wednesday is also known as “Shrovetide,” where shrove is an Old English word meaning “to repent.” In England, the Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday and is celebrated by eating of rich food, that won’t be used during Lent.
As the Protestant Reformation spread throughout Europe, Lent became regarded more as a Roman Catholic institution, and was increasingly ignored by Protestants as a traditional observance. This tendency did not reverse, especially in the US, until the 1980s. Today, more Protestant churches participate in Lent with devotions and Scripture readings, as well as special Ash Wednesday services.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian