One who conceals his wrongdoings will not prosper;
but one who confesses and abandons them
will find compassion.
What is Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras Tuesday?
While Mardi Gras is strongly associated today with all-night parties and debauchery, the actual holiday and how it has always been kept by the faithful is much different. Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras Tuesday is a long-standing Catholic tradition. This special Tuesday of the year marks the last day of ordinary time before the start of Lent – a beautiful and solemn time of fasting and repentance for the Lord beginning on Ash Wednesday.
According to historians, as Catholic Christianity spread throughout Europe during the first millennium different cultures celebrated Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent, in unique ways. In France for example, the holiday celebration became well-known as people began feasting all day on foods they’d soon be giving up for the forty-days of Lent. Meats, eggs, milk, and milk products were finished off within a twenty-four hour period (for pancakes!) giving the holiday its rightful title of “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras.”
Later, as Europeans crossed the Atlantic to colonize the Americas, they brought these traditional practices with them. Eventually, as the colonies began to swell, the Mardi Gras — or Fat Tuesday — celebrations quickly grew from the simple and traditional to the elaborate and secular. New Orleans grew to fame with her masked balls and overt, public celebrations. These parties became so popular in fact that virtually every citizen in the city would partake whether Catholic or not.
In the late 18th century the Spanish, who had retained a more militant and serious perspective on the faith, took control of New Orleans and imposed significant restrictions on the holiday revelry. But by 1823 the secularized parties had returned; and as a consequence, the original Mardi Gras celebration which kick-starts Lent began to lose its Catholic identity.
Today in Louisiana, Mardi Gras is an official state holiday. In other parts of the world, the celebrations have become seasons unto themselves with their own branded and cultural practices. But no matter how the holiday has morphed over the centuries, the original (intent of) Mardi Gras has and will always remain within the context of Catholic morality and reason – a last chance for the faithful to indulge before the start of the Lenten season; that powerful forty-day journey through the proverbial desert; a holy time of fasting, penance, and sacrifice before the real celebration of Resurrection Sunday arrives.
In short, Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” (also known as Shrove Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent. In past times of greater Lenten austerity, Mardi Gras was a day for households to consume the foods they couldn’t enjoy until Easter Sunday – the day the Lord Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. In England, Fat Tuesday is still celebrated with pancakes. They take this opportunity to use up all their eggs, milk, and sugar — yum! — soon forgone throughout the Lenten season. In some countries such as Germany, the Lenten discipline applies also to alcohol so the day before Ash Wednesday — Mardi Gras Tuesday — is also a day to indulge one last time with a beer and/or cocktail.
While feasting on Fat Tuesday is fun and certainly part of the overall tradition, Catholics should spend some time on this day truly examining their conscience as they prepare for the penitential season of Lent. If you can make it to reconciliation, even better! Fat Tuesday is a powerful time to reflect on areas where spiritual growth is needed and to chart out a path throughout Lent to achieve these goals by the grace of God.
Why the Palms?
Fat Tuesday is also the day the Catholic Church burns the palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday in preparation for the ashes to be distributed on Ash Wednesday the following day.
As you prepare for Lent this year, know that we are praying for you!