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Article Info
published: 1/10/05
updated: 5/14/13

Mardi Gras

What is Mardi Gras?


In the Christian religion, Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday" and also known as Carnival and Shrove Tuesday) is the last day before the beginning of Lent, a period of fasting and repentance leading up to Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Traditionally, it is the day for eating up the last of the rich foods that remain in the house and for having a big celebration before a long period of discipline and repentance.

Today, far less people observe Lent, but more than ever celebrate Mardi Gras because they are attracted to the party atmosphere, which includes music, food, and other people.

The Meaning of Mardi Gras

Traditionally, rich foods such as eggs, meat, oils and butter were strictly prohibited during the 40 days of Lent. It thus became customary to eat all that remained of these foods in the house and enjoy one last feast on the day before the 40-day fast. One of the most well-known names for this day, Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday"), reflects the tradition of enjoying rich foods on this day.

Another common name for the holiday, Carnival, may also refer to this last enjoyment of rich foods. Some believe it derives from the medieval Latin carnem levare or carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat.

The name "Shrove Tuesday" derives from the practice of "shriving," or the confession and absolution of sin, that takes place on that day. {1} According to a pre-1000 AD English Ecclesiastical Institutes:

In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then my hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]. {2}

As with many Christian holidays, the celebrations of Mardi Gras were probably adapted in some way from pagan festivals. "It possibly has its roots in a primitive festival honouring the beginning of the new year and the rebirth of nature, though it is also possible that the beginnings of carnival in Italy may be linked to the pagan Saturnalian festival of ancient Rome." {3}

Mardi Gras Celebrations Around the World

Today, the celebration of Mardi Gras/carnival has very little to do with religion. Although found primarily in Roman Catholic regions and based on the tradition of Shrove Tuesday, carnival is a time for raucous celebration and merrymaking to an excess that the Church frowns upon.

In earlier times, Rome was the place to be for the carnival, as its celebrations were unsurpassed in splendor. The Rome Carnival played a major role in the development of dance, theater and music. Today, the most famous Carnival celebrations take place in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Venice, which include masked balls, elaborate costumes, parades and many other festivities.

Carnival celebrations vary in their length and nature throughout the world. In Munich and Bavaria, Fasching (as Carnival is called) begins on Epiphany (January 6), but in Cologne and the Rhineland it begins on November 11 at 11:11 AM. In France, it is celebrated only on the day before Ash Wednesday (thus Mardi Gras, "Fat Tuesday").

The New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration begins on Epiphany and ends on "Fat Tuesday." In many places, Carnival begins on Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) and ends on Shrove Tuesday.

What is the Dates of Mardi Gras?

The date of Mardi Gras is always 41 days before the date of Easter. Some upcoming dates for Mardi Gras are:

  • February 17, 2015
  • February 9, 2016
  • February 28, 2017
  • February 13, 2018

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  1. "Shrove Tuesday." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford UP, 1997), p. 1496.
  2. "Shrovetide." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII (1912). 10 Jan. 2005 <>
  3. "carnival." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
    9 Jan. 2005 <>.

Mardi Gras photo © John Nitsche, for Mardi Gras New Orleans.

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