Join us today as we keep our eyes focused on Christ and discover the Catholic history behind the feast known as “Fat Tuesday.”
Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French, is associated with the Roman Catholic season of Lent. Although many see this celebration as an overindulgence prior to the rigors and personal sacrifice of Lent, this does not truly reflect the holiday’s original intent nor the focus of faithful Catholics around the world. Historically, Fat Tuesday marks the last day of ordinary time prior to the 40 days of Lenten fasting and repentance. Today, Mardi Gras celebrations occur in Roman Catholic communities throughout the world, including Nice, France; Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to name just a few. Mardi Gras in New Orleans, perhaps the most famous Fat Tuesday celebration in the United States, started in the early 18th century. While its parties and wild debauchery often garner the most media attention, this stereotypical behavior greatly maligns the original Catholic intent of the celebration.
But what of Mardi Gras’s modern day similarities with the ancient pagan festival known as Lupercalia? A slight review of Church history is required when addressing their apparent similarities. Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility celebration, did, in fact, include the feasting, drinking and inappropriate carnal behavior often associated with the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration. To highlight the historical connections and disconnections between these two celebrations, one pagan and the other Christo-centric, we must revisit the early writings of Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604 AD). In his epistle to St. Augustine of Canterbury, Gregory details his desired evangelization approach when converting the Anglo Saxons of England. His instructions: destroy only their idols, sprinkle their pagan temples with holy water, raise in them Altars and relics of saints, and replace their pagan celebrations with celebrations focused on holy God and His saints. According to Gregory, seeing that their sacred places where not destroyed would help them “remove error from their hearts” and instead know and glorify the true God in their accustomed sacred places and festivities.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we read, “for though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1Corinthians 9:19, 22-23). In the same way, the Catholic Church, throughout the ages, has incorporated many of the original teachings of Jesus into local customs, festivities and religious practices to help guide the faithful. Examples include the celebration of the Mass and Lord’s Resurrection on Sundays (the pagan day for worship of the Roman Sun God), the Catholic celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 (pagan celebration of the birth of the Roman Sun God) and Mardi Gras celebrated on the Roman pagan feast of Lupercalia. Each of these solemn events, although replacing a pagan feast day, find their origin in the many biblical accounts of Christ’s life, including his Resurrection, birth, 40 days of fasting in the desert and Easter Passion, Death and Resurrection. Unfortunately, both in historical and modern incidences, many have continued to embrace the very pagan practices needing the healing light of Christ.
In Romans 12:2, we read, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So, what are some ways that we, as Catholics and Christians, can celebrate and participate in a Catholic Mardi Gras celebration? I would suggest the following:
- Eat a king cake as a reminder of the true King of kings, the Savior whose arrival we celebrate every December 25th,
- Give gifts to the King of kings, as the three wisemen did on the feast day of the Epiphany (January 6th). Remember their generosity each time you shout, “throw me something mister,” by recycling your beads and other Mardi Gras throws, and/or donating them to Habitat for Humanity or St. Michaels School for special needs children in New Orleans,
- Make a toast to the true King of kings, not the king of any particular Mardi Gras parade,
- Teach your children about the true meaning of the Mardi Gras celebration. Take them to receive ashes the following day. Help them select a generous Lenten offering and sacrifice in preparation for the Easter Triduum. Help them understand the connection between Christmas, Mardi Gras, Lent and Easter, so as to better appreciate God’s plan for our salvation,
- Celebrate our Catholic heritage, recognizing God’s deep love for each of us and the sacrificial offering of His Son for our salvation. Welcome others into the family of God (the Church), for there, we find the boundless grace, blessings and joy of true Christian celebration.