What Is Mardi Gras?

What Is Mardi Gras?

When you think of Mardi Gras, you probably think wild parties. What is Mardi Gras? Where did it come from?

You’ve seen the pictures. You’ve heard the stories. You may have even experienced the party yourself.

Every February or March, Mardi Gras celebrations take cities like New Orleans by storm. Beads, alcohol, parades, and even more alcohol flow through the streets of the French Quarter. And that’s not even the biggest celebration.

In Brazil, the holiday is known as Carnaval. It is the most popular holiday of the year, and the partying, parades, and celebrations last for an entire week.1 The event draws millions of tourists from around the world.

So what exactly is this festival known as Mardi Gras? Where did it come from and why do so many people around the world celebrate it every year?

Religious Origins

Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is actually linked to another religious holiday. For centuries, Christians have celebrated Easter to commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion and his subsequent resurrection from the grave.

For people of faith, Easter is a time of celebration and feasting. Jesus’ victory over death gives them a joyful hope for a new life and a restored relationship with God.

In order to prepare for this celebration, early Christians developed another religious season in the church calendar called Lent.2 For forty days prior to Easter, Christians reflect, repent, and fast in order to prepare themselves to experience the full meaning of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Just as people carefully prepare for big events in their personal lives—a wedding, a graduation, or a big move—Lent invites people of faith to make their hearts ready to remember Jesus’ death, commemorate his sacrifice, and celebrate his resurrection.

Lenten Sacrifices

A little more history on Lent is necessary. The forty days of the Lenten season begin on Ash Wednesday (about six weeks before Easter) and continue until Easter, not counting Sundays, as Sundays are still considered days of celebration.

The number of days is based on the biblical significance of the number forty—specifically, the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert and Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness.3

Historically, Christians have given up something during Lent as a way to refocus on their relationship with God. Lent is considered an opportunity to forgo something one typically enjoys in order to identify with Jesus and remember the sacrifice that he made.

Most often, this includes fasting from certain food or drinks, like chocolate or coffee. Today, some Christians give up more modern luxuries, such as the Internet, social media, or e-mail; reading books, magazines, or newspapers; shopping; or watching television or listening to music.

None of these things are inherently evil. The idea is to abstain from these subtle but powerful influences in order to become less distracted and better equipped to focus one’s attention on God.

On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, some Christians attend services and place ashes on their foreheads as an outward symbol of the repentance and fast they are undertaking.

Fat Tuesday

This brings us to Mardi Gras. The day before Ash Wednesday came to represent one’s last chance to indulge in rich foods, intoxicating drink, or anything else one is giving up for Lent. Hence, the day became known as Fat Tuesday, or in French, Mardi Gras.

As mentioned, another name for this festival is Carnaval o rCarnival. The word “carnaval” comes from Latin terms that mean “to remove meat,” a phrase that came to be associated with fasting during Lent.4 As historian Jill Foran notes, “People living in Paris, France, hundreds of years ago would parade a fattened bull through the city’s streets on Mardi Gras. This show reminded everyone not to eat meat during Lent.”5

Mardi Gras Today

While the origins of the holiday are religious in nature, most revelers today simply use the festival as an opportunity to celebrate, dress up in costumes, enjoy a parade, indulge in overeating or drinking, or engage in general lewd behavior.6 Indeed, Mardi Gras is known for its “anything goes” kind of atmosphere, where generally discouraged social behaviors are instead accepted with a shrug.

However, as with most holidays, Mardi Gras can have significant meaning for participants—whether in Brazil, their local bar, or their own homes—outside of its shadier reputation. Celebrating a meal with friends or family before entering a season of intentional abstinence can provide healthy nourishment for the soul.

The Purpose of the Holiday

Either way, Mardi Gras marks the approach of a significant holiday season—Lent and Easter. The importance of Mardi Gras is not found in a week-long party, drunken revelry, or a parade of multicolored floats.

Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday—signals the coming of a time of repentance, realignment with God, and ultimately, celebration of Jesus’ sacrifice for all people.

  1. Dianne M. MacMillen, Mardi Gras, revised and updated (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2008), 32–33.
  2. The word “Lent” comes from a Saxon word that originally meant “length,” referring to the springtime season in the northern hemisphere when the days were lengthening and signs of new life were appearing. See Bobby Ross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 129.
  3. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Deuteronomy 29:1–6 and Matthew 4:1–11.
  4. Only in the last century or so did the English word “carnival” take on the broader meaning of any festival, circus, fair, or joyous occasion. See Online Etymology Dictionary, “Carnival,” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=carnival.
  5. Jill Foran, Mardi Gras (Mankata, MN: Weigl Publishers, 2003), 6.
  6. For an introduction to Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, see Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras New Orleans (Paris: Flammarion, 1997).
  7. Photo Credit: Galina Barskaya / Shutterstock.com.