Mardi Gras 2021 (Fat Tuesday)

Learn the History Behind this Traditional Feast Day

February 14, 2021
When is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated on Tuesday, February 16, 2021. But what exactly is the meaning of Mardi Gras and why do we celebrate? From its origins as a spring fertility rite to the masked balls of medieval Italy to today’s famous Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans, learn about this fun and 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 last about six weeks and ends just before Easter. This means that Mardi Gras is a moveable holiday which can take place in either February or March.

In 2021, Mardi Gras will be celebrated on Tuesday, February 16.

Mardi Gras Dates

Year Mardi Gras
2021 Tuesday, February 16
2022 Tuesday, March 1
2023 Tuesday, February 21
2024 Tuesday, February 13

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.

In 2021, because of the COVID-19, there won’t be any big parades scheduled but, of course, Mardi Gras itself is not cancelled. After all, it existed long before parades!

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.

Pancake Tuesday

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. 

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Other cultures also cook up rich treats and fried foods.

  • Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Tuesday is called Fastnacht (fast night), and everyone enjoys the traditional fastnachtkuchen, a rectangular doughnut with a slit in the middle.
  • In Polish communities, the Tuesday is called “Paczki Day,” after the puffy jelly-filled doughnuts traditionally enjoyed.
  • In Sweden, the Tuesday is called semmeldagen, semlans dag, or fettisdagen. They enjoy a sweet cream bun called semla. Happy Semlans Dag!
  • In Louisiana, the favorite treat is the beignet, a pillowy fried dough concoction. (See below!)

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Beignets covered in powdered sugar

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 there is no connection and the customs may come from much older Indo-European spring lore and 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 reknown 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 extravagent 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 parade

Mardi Gras Traditions

Masks
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. 

Parades
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.

King Cake
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.

Related Content

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.

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Reader Comments

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Thank you

Thank you for the wonderful article. I am originally from Illinois but I lived in New Orleans for 10 years. I loved it there. I learned many things from your read thank you so much #YouCanTakeTheGirlAwayFromMardiGrasButYouCantTakeMardiGrasOutTheGirl♡

Polish "mardi gras" traditions

Just a small correction - Polish tradition is to eat donuts (deep fried yeast-based balls of dough filled with jam, quite often plum butter - very yummy if you can find the authentic kind) is on the Thursday BEFORE the week of Ash Wednesday, so it's "Fat Thursday", not Fat Tuesday.

Mardi Gras

I've been twice to Mardi Gras New Orleans, enjoyed the FOOD, people, the Crew parades you can have fun and do not need to get drunk it is a mind set to enjoy.

40 days of lent?

Easter falls on April 21st 2019. If 40 days are in Lent. And if forty days are subtracted from 4/21/19, I get 3/12/19. If March 5th is used, then I get 47 days of Lent.

40 Days of Lent?

The Editors's picture

In 2019, Lent officially begins on Ash Wednesday (March 6) and ends on Holy Thursday (April 18), which comes out to 44 days. However, because fasting is not observed on Sundays but is observed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, this brings the total days of fasting to 40.

40 days of Lent

Different Christian denominations calculate Lent differently. Roman Catholics exclude Sundays. Christ rose on Sunday, therefore it is a day of celebration and you are not required to fast. Many Catholics give up something for Lent such as a favorite food and are allowed to have that on Sunday during Lent. If however, one has given up something such as boasting, it hardly makes sense to continue that practice on Sunday!

Lent

Do not count the Sundays.

40 days of Lent

Sundays are always a feast day as we acknowledge God's presence at Eucharist. So, when looking at a calender to count 40 days of lent that start on ash wednesday do not include Sundays.

MARDI GRAS

New Orleans is best know for it but it originated in Mobile, AL

You forgot to mention that

You forgot to mention that Mardi Gras celebration started in Mobile Alabama not New Orleans

Yes. Although Mardi Gras

The Editors's picture

Yes. Although Mardi Gras began as far back as the Middle Ages in Europe, it appears that the first "city/town" (rather than individual) celebration in what is now the United States took place in 1703 in what is now Mobile, Alabama. Back then, it was a French settlement called Fort Louis de la Mobile, which had been established by French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and his brother, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville. Bienville later established New Orleans in 1718.

Mardi Gras is also celebrated in many other areas, including Biloxi, Mississsipi, whose first official parade took place in 1908.

maybe so, but New Orleans

maybe so, but New Orleans made it better!

I'm from Nola

Just lookin