Most folks have heard of Mardis Gras, but how many know what it means? I don't just mean literally (it's French for "Fat Tuesday"), but historically and liturgically? For example, did you know that Mardis Gras actually has its roots in Christmas?
I did a little research and found out some more tidbits that I didn't know before.
Mardis Gras isn't just the one day before Ash Wednesday (though the folks in New Orleans could've told me that, I'm sure!) It's actually the entire celebratory season from Epiphany (or Twelfth Night, January 6th) until the Lenten season of penance begins at midnight of Ash Wednesday.
The King's cake which is a mandatory part of Mardis Gras in New Orleans (another thing I hadn't known before), commemorates the route of the three kings (also known as the three wise men) who traveled from the East to seek the Infant King of the world, Jesus. They took a circuitous route in order to evade King Herod's men. (Hence, the circular cake). Herod had instructed the three kings to return to him after finding the Infant King in order that King Herod might come and pay homage to Him. (Yeah, right, Herod!) The three kings weren't called "wise men" for nothing. They never told Herod where He was.
The colors are significant too. The purple stands for justice, green is faith and gold is power. The Church uses these colors throughout the liturgical year as well. Purple is the color worn for Advent and Lent and signifies penance; green is worn during Ordinary Time and represents the hope of life eternal and new life; Gold represents something highly valued and esteemed.
In Catholic Europe, the period from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival: from the Latin words carne vale, meaning "farewell to meat," signifying the period of abstaining from meat during the Lenten fast.
Speaking of fasting: Mardis Gras doesn't mean you indulge on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and thus you get fat (as I used to think). The "fat" part of Fat Tuesday means all animal fats were used up, since they would not be used during the six weeks of the Lenten observance.
The English also used up their animal fats (and dairy products, including eggs, which were forbidden during Lent from about the seventh century until fairly recently). Even though Englishmen can now eat butter and eggs during Lent, the tradition of "Pancake Day" or "Shrove Tuesday" remains. Shrove Tuesday refers to the tradition of being "shriven" of one's sins on that day by making an examination of conscience and going to confession to prepare for the season of penance. Though not as boisterous a holiday as Mardis Gras or Carnival, the Brits are just as wed to the traditions of Pancake Day as are the rowdier crowds wed to their King's cake in New Orleans. Pancake races, whereby the runners must also flip pancakes in skillets whilst running, are a popular event in the villages of England even today. (When we lived in North Yorkshire, our parish priest was a frequent winner of these races).
My kids insisted upon eating pancakes for supper last Tuesday, even though I assured them they would be available to them for breakfast throughout Lent. (I opted for a nice helping of leftover lasagne with a glass of merlot for dinner that night).