Mardi Gras and the Catholic Church
Mardi Gras is strongly associated with wild bacchanalia and debauchery, but the original intent of the holiday and how it’s kept by the faithful is much different. Fat Tuesday, as it is known in English, is a long-standing tradition of the Catholic Church and it marks the last day of ordinary time before the start of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance. While the parties in Europe, South America, and parts of the United States have gained the most attention in popular culture, they seriously misrepresent and outright eclipse the Catholic intent of the holiday.
According to historians, the celebration of Mardi Gras has its roots in the pagan Roman celebration of Lupercalia. This was a February holiday and it honored the Roman god of fertility. It involved feasting, drinking, and carnal behavior.
However, with the rise of the Church in ancient Rome, Christian teaching and morals took root, but there always remained a strong need to blend ancient Roman traditional practices with the growing Christian faith. The blending of tradition with new religious beliefs was a common practice in the ancient world and it helped people to transition away from paganism. In fact, there are a number of ancient Roman traditions that persevere in the Roman Catholic Church to this day, where they continue to guide the faithful.
As Catholic Christianity spread throughout Europe during the first millennium, different cultures celebrated the last day before Lent in their own ways, adapting the practices to suit their cultures. In France, the holiday became particularly popular as people feasted on foods that would be given up during the forty days of Lent. Meats, eggs, and milk were finished off in one day, giving the holiday its French title of “Mardi Gras” which means Fat Tuesday.
As Europeans crossed the Atlantic to colonize the Americas, they brought their religious practices with them. From the onset, holidays such as Mardi Gras were celebrated in the colonies with as much enthusiasm as they were celebrated in Europe. As the colonies swelled with European immigrants, the celebrations went from the simple to the elaborate. In New Orleans, masked balls and public celebrations quickly became common. In fact, the celebrations became so popular that virtually every citizen of the city joined in even if they were not Catholic.
However, in the late 18th century, the Spanish took control of New Orleans and having a more militant and serious perspective on the faith, they imposed significant restrictions on the holiday revelry. Among them, they banned masked balls. However, by 1823, this ban was lifted and parades returned by 1837. At this point, the celebration began to lose its identity as an exclusively Catholic tradition and became more secularized over the centuries.
In Louisiana, Mardi Gras in an official state holiday.
In other parts of the world, the holiday became a season unto itself each branded with unique cultural practices. For example, Venice, Italy is famous for the masked balls that take place on Mardi Gras and the days before. The Venetian tradition dates back to the 13th century and the city remains a popular Mardi Gras destination today.
Still, the original intent of Mardi Gras has always been to indulge, within the context of Catholic morality and reason, the last day before the start of the Lenten season. Here, it is appropriate to mention that while Lent is a season of self-sacrifice and repentance, it is not meant to be a period of self-punishment or extreme hardship.
More Easter / Lent
'So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead' - Luke 24:46
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption. continue reading
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in all four canonical Gospels. (Mark 11:1.11, Matthew 21:1.11, Luke 19:28.44, and John 12:12.19) ... continue reading
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the first joy of the season, as we celebrate Our Lord's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem where he was welcomed by crowds worshiping him and laying down palm leaves before him. It also marks the beginning of Holy Week... continue reading
HOLY THURSDAY is the most complex and profound of all religious observances. It celebrates his last supper with the disciples, a celebration of Passover ... continue reading
On Good Friday, each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption. In the solemn ceremonies of Holy Week we unite ourselves to our Savior, and we contemplate our own death to sin in the Death of our Lord ... continue reading
Easter is the principal feast of the ecclesiastical year. Leo I (Sermo xlvii in Exodum) calls it the greatest feast (festum festorum), and says that Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for Easter. It is the centre of the greater part of the ecclesiastical year ... continue reading
For most people the easiest practice to consistently fulfill will be the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere. Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk. 5:35). continue reading
Everything answered from when does lent end, ashes, giving something up, stations of the cross and blessed palms. The key to understanding the meaning of Lent is simple: Baptism... continue reading
Stations of the Cross refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion. First Station: Jesus is condemned to death... pray the stations now
What did you give up for Lent?
From the humorous to the bizarre, people have had interesting Lenten experiences. Tell us about what you are going to give up for this Lenten Year.
What others gave up »
Deacon Keith Fournier - Catholic Online, 3/27/2015
The Liturgy of Palm or Passion Sunday, with its re-presentation of the triumphal entry of the Master into Jerusalem leading into the first Passion Narrative sets the Liturgical framework for a week ...Continue Reading
Deacon Keith Fournier - Catholic Online, 3/27/2015
Cleaning out garages is a metaphor for so much more. Cleaning out the house within is an even greater challenge. However, failure to do so carries with it much more of a consequence. After all, the ...Continue Reading
Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM) - Catholic Online, 3/26/2015
The time has finally come. We've sacrificed, struggled, and prayed our way to the end of Lent. Easter is about to begin. Hopefully, Lent has not been just about us as individuals and our struggles ...Continue Reading
Alex Basile - Catholic Online, 3/26/2015
In a crazy world, a holy time like Lent can zip by like the rest of the year. Author Alex Basile ponders if he is ready for the most sacred time in the Liturgical Year. Each year I arrive at the ...Continue Reading
On Good Friday, the entire Church fixes her gaze on the Cross at Calvary. Each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption.
In the symbol of the Cross we can see the magnitude of the human tragedy, the ravages of original sin, and the infinite love of God. Learn More
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. Learn More
Stations of the Cross refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion.
ACT OF CONTRITION. O my God, my Redeemer, behold me here at Thy feet. From the bottom of my heart... Pray the Stations
'Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed' Lk. 5:35
Abstinence. The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted.
Fasting. The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday (Canon 97) to the 59th Birthday (i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday) to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal.
Learn More »