HISTORY OF MARDI GRAS
In French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday.” It is celebrated the day after Shrove Monday and the day before Ash Wednesday as a last “fling” before the 40 days of self-denial 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 and is a period in the liturgical calendar. It seems to parallel the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness that Jesus experienced following his baptism at the Jordan River.
Origin of Mardi Gras
Historically, Lenten fasting became mandatory, especially abstinence from eating meat. The first Council of Nicaea in 325 AD spoke of fasting for 40 days before Easter. While recommended by St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Festal Letter III to his flock in Egypt in 331 AD, by the Middle Ages, Lent was enforced throughout Europe, especially the forbidding of meat during the last weeks before Easter. In the early 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great declared that fasting should begin on Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras and Carnival
The word carnival comes from an old Italian word that means “go without meat” or “removal of meat” (Latin: carne levare.) Festivals like Mardi Gras sprang up throughout Europe to prepare for the coming times of self-denial.
Because livestock in Europe were typically slaughtered in November, meat would not be preservable. The remaining winter stores of lard, butter, and meat would be eaten, for these would otherwise soon start to spoil.
Carnival is a six-week celebration between Epiphany and Lent in various parts of the world.
- Venice was especially a “party town” for centuries with its Carnevale di Venezia and elaborate masks, which are still available in shops there today.
- In England, the Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday, following Shrove Monday, and is celebrated by eating rich food that won’t be consumed during Lent.
- In the British Isles and some former countries of the British Commonwealth, Pancake Tuesday is a popular way of celebrating the day and eliminating rich foodstuffs from the pantry during Lent.
- Brazil is renowned for its Sambadrome Carnival Parade. Rio de Janeiro – the second-most-populous city in Brazil (after São Paulo) and the sixth-most-populous city in the Americas – hosts the largest Carnival celebration in the world. It started this year on February 7, and four nights of Samba competitions began on February 9.
- New Orleans in the U.S. has the best-known parades – featuring colorful floats and masked riders – attracting over a million visitors yearly and bringing in $1B in revenue. Known for the Mardi Gras “beads,” as recently as 2018, the city discovered over 46 tons of discarded beads in storm drains along the 5-block parade route.
Meat after Mardi Gras?
As the Protestant Reformation spread throughout Europe, Lent became regarded more as a Roman Catholic institution. Protestants largely ignored it as a traditional observance, starting from the early 16th century onward.
This was precipitated by the famous “Affair of the Sausages.” Ulrich Zwingli, the Grossmünster (Great Minster) church pastor in Zurich, spoke in favor of eating sausage during Lent in defense of a dinner at the home of his friend, the local printer, in March 1522.
Though he did not enjoy sausages, Zwingli argued that Lenten meat fasting should be voluntary rather than mandatory, as it was not expressly forbidden in the Bible.
This reluctance by Protestants to observe Lent did not reverse, especially in the US, until the 1980s. Today, more Protestant churches participate in Lent with devotions, Scripture readings, and special Ash Wednesday services.
What are the customs you observe on Mardi Gras?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian