Episco-Fact #80
February 8, 2018

Does Mardi Gras have religious roots?

Yes, sort of. Cultural events like Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), stretch so far back in our history that their roots are often obscure, or at least, historically obscure. It is nearly impossible to state definitively whether or not the celebration of Fat Tuesday grew up to obscure the Roman celebrations of the god of fertility, or if both celebrations grew in relationship to one another because of the mere presence of the other in an undeclared battle for cultural priority.

But, during the early to late Medieval Period the church grew dominant and its prohibitions on behavior during Lent became increasingly strict, including the banning of eating meat and abstinence through the whole forty days. Peasants rarely ate red meat, but the nobility had to give up this luxury too. In Anglo-Saxon England, that meant true hardship on the peasantry, as they were reduced to a vegetarian diet that lacked key nutrients. Therefore, before whole areas embarked on Lenten disciplines, they consumed what soon would not be available to them for forty days: eggs, meat, butter, and more.

There was a Roman festival in February known as the Lupercalia, a feast dedicated to the Roman God of fertility. That celebration was characterized by feasting, drinking, and carnal behavior. It would not be unusual in these Christianizing areas for the local church authorities to repurpose the feast by adding a veneer of Christian character, behavior, and morals to local customs. Instead of honoring the god of fertility, the end of the ordinary time of the season of Epiphany has the exclamation point of finishing off the meats, breads, butter, and the carnal pleasure of the married, before Lenten abstinence began.

The area of what is now France, was a rich and fertile area under Rome and in the new Christian political organizations. The "Fat Tuesday" finish to ordinary time was very popular among the locals. As European Kingdoms spread out in the Age of Exploration, they brought their customs to their new homes.

Those customs often began simply, but as the standard of living increased, the celebrations became more elaborate. New Orleans, who has the most famous United States based celebration of this type (another is the Gasparilla in Tampa), was historically consistent with this pattern. The first European settlers were French, and therefore, Roman Catholic. They brought Mardi Gras with them, saw it constrained and for all practical purposes banned when the Spanish, who practiced a more severe form of Roman Catholicism, came to dominate New Orleans in the late 18th Century. Under U. S. rule, the bans on balls and feasting were repealed in 1823, and the parades, so much a part of the modern celebration, began in 1837.

The character of the celebration has changed with the increasing secularization of New Orleans. The feasting is not offset by the privations of Lent. But at least, in honor of the sobriety of Ash Wednesday, the celebrations of Mardi Gras stop precisely at midnight, the beginning of Lent.