Learn the History Behind this Traditional Feast Day
June 20, 2022
Mardi Gras—also known as Shrove Tuesday—will be celebrated on Tuesday, February 21, 2023! Do you know the meaning of Mardi Gras—and why it’s celebrated? From its origins as a spring fertility rite to the masked balls of medieval Italy to today’s Carnival festivities, learn about this fascinating holiday.
When Is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras, also called Shrove Tuesday, takes place annually on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday—the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, which lasts about six weeks and ends just before Easter. This means that Mardi Gras is a moveable holiday that can take place in either February or March.
In 2023, Mardi Gras will be celebrated on Tuesday, February 21.
Mardi Gras Dates
Tuesday, February 21
Tuesday, February 13
Tuesday, March 4
Tuesday, February 17
What Is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, when the Christian season of Lent begins. This day is also called Shrove Tuesday, a name that comes from the practice of “shriving”—purifying oneself through confession—prior to Lent. For many Christians, Shrove Tuesday is a time to receive penance and absolution.
You’ll sometimes hear Mardi Gras referred to as “Carnival.” Technically, this term refers to the period of feasting that begins on January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany) and ends on Mardi Gras. In cities such as New Orleans (U.S.), Rio Janeiro (Brazil), and Venice (Italy), there are week-long festivals leading up to Mardi Gras.
What does Mardi Gras Mean?
In French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday.” (Mardi is the word for Tuesday and gras is the word for fat.)
This name comes from the tradition of using up the eggs, milk, and fat in ones pantry because they were forbidden during the 40-day Lenten fast, which begins the next day (Ash Wednesday) and ends on Holy Thursday (three days before Easter Sunday).
Therefore, a big part of Shrove Tuesday is eating an abundance of delicious fried food—especially donuts and Shrove Tuesday Pancakes!
The word “carnival” also comes from this feasting tradition: in Medieval Latin, carnelevarium means “to take away or remove meat”, from the Latin carnem for meat. During Lent, Catholics traditionally gave up meat during the Lenten season and mainly ate fish.
In England, where the day is also known as Pancake Tuesday, festivities include flapjack-related activities. The pancake race held by women in Olney, Buckinghamshire, dates back to 1445. Legend says that the idea started when a woman cooking pancakes lost track of the time. When she heard the church bells ring, she rushed out the door to attend the shriving service while still wearing her apron and holding a skillet containing a pancake.
Other cultures also cook up rich treats and fried foods.
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Tuesday is called Faasenacht (also spelled Fastnacht), meaning “fast night.” Everyone enjoys the traditional Fasnacht pastry, a rectangular doughnut with a slit in the middle.
In Polish communities, the Tuesday is called “Pączki Day,” after the puffy, jelly-filled doughnuts traditionally enjoyed.
In Louisiana, the favorite treat is the beignet, a pillowy fried dough concoction. (See below!)
Short History of Mardi Gras
According to Laurie Wilkie, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, Mardi Gras “Carnival” celebrations started before Christianity as a pagan fertility festival. Some scholars believe it may have been linked to the ancient Roman pagan feast, Saturnalia, which honored the god of agriculture, Saturn. Other research suggests that there is no connection and the customs may come from much older Indo-European spring lore—perhaps the folklore of the Germanic and Slavic races rather than from Greece or Rome.
In any event, once Christianity arrived, Roman pagan celebrations were absorbed into the religious calendar. The carnival practices in Rome continued within the framework of the Church. The masked balls of Venice were especially renowned in Renaissance Italy and spread to France and England. In France, they were called les bals des Rois for the kings who presided over the masked merrymaking. Whoever found a coin or a bean in a piece of special “king cake” (named for the Three Kings of the nativity) was named king for the night.
In 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived in the New World about 60 miles directly south of New Orleans; he named this place “Pointe du Mardi Gras” as it was the very eve of the holiday. He also established “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” (which is now Mobile, Alabama) in 1702. While New Orleans may be most known for Mardi Gras in the U.S. today, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras in 1703.
Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans soon after the city’s founding in 1718. The first recorded Mardi Gras street parade in New Orleans took place in 1837. Now a major metropolis, New Orleans is the city most known for its extravagant celebrations with parades, dazzling floats, masked balls, cakes, and drink.
I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
–Mark Twain, American writer (1835–1910)
Mardi Gras Traditions
The masks are one of the most popular Mardi Gras traditions. It’s thought that masks during Mardi Gras allowed wearers to escape society and class constraints to mingle however they wished.
The parades are organized by prestigious New Orleans social clubs, or Krewes (pronounced “crews”). Each Krewe has its own royal court and hosts parties and masked balls during Carnival Season, leading up to the parade.
Beads or Throws
Krewe members on floats throw beads and trinkets to the parade-goers; it’s a tradition that goes back to the early 1870s. The beads seem to be a nod to a king throwing gems to his loyal subjects as he passes by on his carriage.
Purple, green, and gold
The colors of Mardi Gras were selected by the Krewe of Rex in 1872. Purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power.
Only eaten during Mardi Gras, King cakes are a cross between a French pastry and a coffee cake, topped with icing and sugar in the Mardi Gras colors. They can be served on Three King’s Day (January 6) through the end of Mardi Gras. A small baby (representing Jesus) is hidden in the cake. Tradition says whoever gets the king cake piece containing the baby is supposed to provide the king cake for the next gathering.
In the spirit of New Orleans, try cooking up some great Cajun food for Mardi Gras, such as this soul-warming Jambalaya.
Discover more about the history and traditions of this holiday on the City of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Website.