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February 3, 2008

A lesson on the real Mardi Gras

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about my love of Mardi Gras and how much my family has enjoyed going to parades over the years. As a native of New Orleans, I took in my first parade at a very early age. My parents have pictures of me as an infant dressed up in a costume, sitting atop a homemade box seat mounted on top of a step ladder so that I (along with my sister) could see above the crowd.

After writing that column, I had several people share their stories of their enjoyment of Mardi Gras. Still, for some, there is a misconception of how Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday really began and what they truly mean.

If you only know Mardi Gras by what you have seen or heard of the New Orleans parades, you may not know the real history of the celebration. Mardi Gras always falls on the Tuesday prior to Lent, which is the solemn season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church and certain other Christian denominations.

The early church called on Christians to strictly abstain from all animal products (including meat, milk, butter, eggs, and lard) during this period to imitate the sacrifice of the forty days of prayer and fasting by Jesus. The Latin term for this abstinence is Carnevale, which means “farewell to meat.” Today, the period of celebration prior to Mardi Gras has become known as “Carnival.”

In the Middle Ages, housewives would cook heavy meals to clear out their pantries of all butter, lard, cheese, eggs, cream, and bacon on the Tuesday prior to Lent. This day became known as “Butter Tuesday,” or, as the French called it, “Mardi Gras,” which means “Fat Tuesday.”

This day was also known as “Shrove Tuesday” because it marked the day before Christians were “shrivened,” or deprived, of meat. It was also the day that many Christians confessed their sins in preparation for Lent, thereby becoming “shriven of sin.” Once the solemn season of Lent began, there was to be no more celebrations or feasts until after Easter. In South Louisiana, which is primarily Catholic, very few weddings are held during Lent, as this is the season to abstain from celebration.

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