Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, aka “Fat” Tuesday. An article from AmericanCatholic.org does a good job of hitting the highlights helpful to an understanding of the contrast between pre-Lenten feasting and Lenten fasting. Here are a few excerpts:
Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday,” has grown in popularity in recent years as a raucous, sometimes hedonistic event. But its roots lie in the Christian calendar, as the “last hurrah” before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. That’s why the enormous party in New Orleans ends abruptly at midnight on Tuesday, with street sweepers promptly pushing crowds out of the French Quarter.
What is less known about Mardi Gras is its relation to the Christmas season, through the ordinary-time interlude known in many Catholic cultures as Carnival. Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh.” As early as the middle of the second century, the Romans observed a Fast of 40 Days, which was preceded by a brief season of feasting, costumes and merrymaking.
The Carnival season kicks off with the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day and, in the Eastern churches, Theophany. Epiphany, which falls on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, celebrates the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for the infant Jesus. In cultures that celebrate Carnival, Epiphany kicks off a series of parties leading up to Mardi Gras.
Epiphany is also traditionally when celebrants serve King’s Cake, a custom that began in France in the 12th century. Legend has it that the cakes were made in a circle to represent the circular routes that the Wise Men took to find Jesus, in order to confuse King Herod and foil his plans of killing the Christ Child. In the early days, a coin or bean was hidden inside the cake, and whoever found the item was said to have good luck in the coming year. In Louisiana, bakers now put a small baby, representing the Christ Child, in the cake. The recipient is then expected to host the next King Cake party.
There are well-known season-long Carnival celebrations in Europe and Latin America, including Nice, France; Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The best-known celebration in the U.S. is in New Orleans and the French-Catholic communities of the Gulf Coast. Mardi Gras came to the New World in 1699, when a French explorer arrived at the Mississippi River, about 60 miles south of present day New Orleans. He named the spot Point du Mardi Gras because he knew the holiday was being celebrated in his native country that day.
Eventually the French in New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras with masked balls and parties, until the Spanish government took over in the mid-1700s and banned the celebrations. The ban continued even after the U.S. government acquired the land but the celebrations resumed in 1827. The official colors of Mardi Gras, with their roots in Catholicism, were chosen 10 years later: purple, a symbol of justice; green, representing faith; and gold, to signify power.
Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French. The name comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival. The day is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from “to shrive,” or hear confessions), Pancake Tuesday and fetter Dienstag. The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting and abstinence of Lent begins.
We Lutheran Christians don’t normally make a big deal of Fat Tuesday, choosing instead to focus on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Traditionally, some Christians “give up” something of value during the Lenten season, signifying a denial of worldly pleasures in favor of a spiritual emphasis on the suffering and death of Christ on Calvary’s cross. Some choose to observe Lent with periods of fasting to focus on Christ’s sacrifice for the world.
The “ash” of Ash Wednesday refers to the long standing custom of the imposition of ashes on the forehead of Christian worshipers that day, in the sign of a cross. The ashes often come from the burning of palm leaves used by worshipers on Palm Sunday.
Hopefully these details will add to your appreciation of the significance of Lent, including the transition from pre-Lenten feasting to Lenten fasting. It’s a spiritually significant time of year!