What Is Mardi Gras? What’s with the Pancakes?

If you aren’t tuned into the Christian banner of celebrations, Mardi Gras is probably this thing you grew up vaguely hearing about but then never thought too hard about because it wasn’t something you observed. Maybe you’ve heard of Mardi Gras as “Fat Tuesday,” which might be weird if you don’t get it. Less weird if you know French; it directly translates to “Fat Tuesday.” We’ll explain that too. So what is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras: Origins

If you go all the way back, the popular theory holds Mardi Gras has pagan origins. Many believe Mardi Gras was once Roman, specifically of fertility like Saturnalia–a week-long festival observed before winter crops were sown. During these times business, work, and most institutions were suspended–and people eschewed most social norms. Might sound familiar. Others point to Lupercalia, which is still a fertility thing. Eventually Saturnalia would be folded into Christmas when Christianity started incorporating every celebration into itself. 

Further Reading: What Does it Mean to Be Pagan?

Some don’t think that Mardi Gras is at all linked to pagan origins and an alternative but less popular theory has linked it entirely to the Catholic Church and discouraging meat/sex during Lent. The Catholic Church then turned around and spread Mardi Gras’ association with pagan traditions as a way to discourage self-indulgence. 

Modern Mardi Gras

We brought up Lent a hot second ago, which begins on Ash Wednesday–the day after Mardi Gras. You know, Fat Tuesday.

Without getting too far into what Lent is, it’s a yearly sacrifice of some luxury that most Christians observe. It’s rooted in the whole 40 days of fasting Jesus did, and Lent ends when Easter rolls around. Observers then get to re-indulge on whatever they chose to miss out on. 

Put two and two together, Mardi Gras is in its current form is like a “last chance” thing. If you’re about to not indulge yourself until Easter, might as well go nuts the day before you start. That’s why we get Fat Tuesday; Lent is in commemoration of a 40 day fast so it’s eating time. Plus one of the more common sacrifices for Lent is meat. 

Not everyone calls it Fat Tuesday though, you’ve also got Shrove Tuesday in the UK. Going through the linguistic chain, it refers to confession and absolution.

Mardi Gras celebrations tend to vary by location, though the sentiment remains. Some have it as the 3 days preceding Ash Wednesday (start of Lent), while New Orleans, Louisiana takes it quite a few steps longer. It lasts from the 12th Day of Christmas (Epiphany) through Ash Wednesday. For Americans, Mardi Gras isn’t that big of a deal unless you’re in an ethnically French region. How did Fat Tuesday make its way to Americans? The long short is French colonists in the early 1700s. Mardi Gras would be cemented in New Orleans after the Spanish tried to hard-cancel it, which ended up not happening as it was declared an official state holiday in Louisiana in 1875. Now it’s a tourist thing in the US. 

Germany has Fat Thursday (in the weeks preceding Ash Wednesday), which is sometimes “Greasy” or “Lard” Thursday. The weeks preceding Ash Wednesday are part of the carnival season, traditionally beginning on November 11th, at 11:11 AM. Which means besides the year, your calendar/clock reads all 11s. Neat.

What About Pancake Day?

Shrove Tuesday is also referred to as Pancake Day. It’s still the traditional feast preceding Lent, where Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day would have Christians “shriven.” Which means they would be absolved of their sins. 

Because Lent sacrifices often include Christian veganism, it was often the last chance those observing Lent would have a shot to use up eggs and fat for the next 40 days (give or take). Fun fact, those ingredients do not last that long. Dating back to the 1400s, the easy solution was to make a bunch of pancakes and now you have Pancake Day.

Speaking of pancakes, make sure you know how to make them here.