Though it's today associated with beads, The Big Easy, and unhinged young women on videotape, Fat Tuesday began as a religious observance.
Historians believe Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” has its origins in Roman pagan fertility festivals. When Christianity swept Rome, the church incorporated the oft-debauched festivals into its observances as a way of attracting followers.
The name “Fat Tuesday,” comes from the custom to indulge on sweets and meats that Catholics traditionally forego during the Lent period, in order to foster contrition.
Celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday is a tradition of blowing off steam before the 40 penitent days of Lent.
Though the custom of wearing brightly ornate masks and costumes during balls and in street processions began in Italy, the tradition spread to France, which popularized the rite throughout Europe, and later the French population of New Orleans.
According to historians, a French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville instigated the first American Mardi Gras on March 3, 1699, after landing close to New Orleans, on a spot he named “Pointe due Mardi Gras.”
The holiday in New Orleans and other French settlements raged for a few decades, until Spain gained control of New Orleans, and abolished the boisterous celebration.
In 1827, the holiday was revived in Louisiana, after students who had returned from Paris, where it was still celebrated, danced through the city in costume.
Thirty years later, a secret society of the city’s merchants called the Mistick Krewe of Comus, organized a Mardi Gras parade with moving floats and a marching band. The group chose the official Mardi Gras colors: green to represent faith; gold for power; purple for justice.
Today the colors are the official colors of both Tulane University and the University of Louisiana. Mardi Gras is a state holiday in Louisiana.
Arguably, additional color has been added in recent years by some women who bare their breasts in exchange for festival beads on one offshoot of the Mardi Gras parade route. The Girls Gone Wild video franchise honed in, and encouraged the trend by filming and distributing footage.
Other places around the world that have unique pre-Lenten celebrations on the day of Fat Tuesday include the United Kingdom.
In England, pancakes are the traditional food of their version of Fat Tuesday, called “Shrove Tuesday.” Pancake ingredients use eggs and fat, two food items that were prohibited for consumption during the Lent period. The word “shrove” is an archaic English term, meaning “confessed,” as priestly confession rites are observed ahead of Lent.
Soccer games and outdoor races are also a part of the day’s celebration in the U.K.
Many Catholic countries observe pre-Lenten rituals, including Brazil, where they have a weeklong Carnival that incorporates the European tradition of wearing masks, with dancing and other African and Latin American traditions. In Germany, the Karneval festival, also known as Fastnacht or Fasching is similar to Mardi Gras, with the added tradition of allowing women to cut men’s neckties.
Children in Denmark dress up in costumes on the Monday or Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday as—similar to Halloween—they gather candy.
Editor's Note: This article was first published by Bayside Patch on March 8, 2011.
Sources: AmericanCatholic.org, Mardigrasneworleans.com, History.com, Wikipedia.org, Newadvent.org.