You may think of Mardi Gras as a big party, but it actually has a religious origin.
It’s the end of February, which means Mardi Gras is almost here! When we think of Mardi Gras, we picture parties, parades, and beads. But did you ever wonder what “Mardi Gras” means?
Mardi Gras Kicks Off Lent
The first thing to know about Mardi Gras is that it kicks off the Christian season of Lent. That’s the time when people prepare for Easter, the holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ.
In Western churches, Lent begins six-and-a-half weeks before Easter on what’s known as Ash Wednesday. On this solemn day, Christians are asked to reflect on their mortality and their need to reconcile with God.
They are also asked to begin fasting — and to fast for the next 40 days.
Nowadays, that might mean giving up wine or candy.
But in the early days of the church, fasting was pretty hard core. You could only eat one meal a day, and that had to be in the evening. You couldn’t eat eggs, butter, meat, or fish. In some places, you couldn’t have oil, wine, or any other type of dairy.
Knowing this period of fasting was coming up, people naturally tried to use up any of these foods they had on hand before Lent began. Especially because there wasn’t refrigeration back then.
That leads us back to Mardi Gras.
'Mardi Gras' Means 'Fat Tuesday'
In French, “Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday.” In other words, it’s the day when people try to literally use up all the fats in their house before Ash Wednesday begins.
If you’re a regular listener or reader, you will remember that just a couple of weeks ago we talked about the origin of the names of the days of the week, and in Roman times, Tuesday was “dies Martis,” with directly led to the French and Spanish words we use for Tuesday today.
Mardi Gras Started as a Way to Get Rid of Food Before the Time of Fasting
Over time, this practical act turned into a celebration. You can see how. If you had to get rid of all the ice cream, frozen pizzas, and potato chips in your house, you’d probably throw a party too.
And so the Mardi Gras carnival was born, the feasts and festivities leading up to Lent. In fact, the word “carnival” itself reflects this tradition. It comes from the Latin “carnem levāre” (or the Italian “carne levare”). Both refer to the putting away or removal of flesh.
By the way, you probably already know that the word “carne” means meat. Just think of carne asada, that yummy staple of Mexican cuisine. “Asada” means “roasted” or “grilled.” So carne asada means “grilled meat.”
Anyway! A term that’s like “carnival,” but now obsolete, is “carneprivium.” The “privium” part of that word comes from “privare,” meaning “to deprive.” Thus “carneprivium” meant “to deprive of meat.”
“Carnival” and “Mardi Gras” entered English in the 1500s and 1600s, even though Lent had been celebrated for centuries beforehand.
Maybe it took that long for people to turn a time of penitence into an excuse for partying. Whatever the reason, the celebration of Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — continues to this day.
And the word “carnival” referred to the party before Lent long before it became something with rides and games that might be part of a bigger circus. According to Etymonline, that meaning didn’t come about until 1926.
Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Ash Wednesday, Lent, Mardi Gras (subscription required, accessed February 14, 2020).
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Lent, Mardi Gras, Carnival (subscription required, accessed February 14, 2020).
Image photo credits (all from Shutterstock)