What is Mardi Gras, and Ash Wednesday, and how do we celebrate?

Ever wonder what all the fuss is about? Here’s what we know about Carnival, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season.

As we celebrate Fat Tuesday, staring Ash Wednesday and 40 days of Lent straight in the face, it’s a good time to remember, reflect and, possibly, make sure you have money for bail, as the usually raucous Carnival season comes to an end with Mardi Gras.

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Ever wonder what all the fuss is about? Here’s what we know about Carnival, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season.

What is Mardi Gras?

While it is commonly referred to as a whole season of events, it is actually only one day.

Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. Some call it Shrove Tuesday, which grew out of an English term (Shrovetide) meaning the last day before the liturgical period called Lent. Shrove means to confess or be absolved of sin.

The celebration dates back centuries to pagan celebrations of fertility and the season of spring.

The season of floats, parades and parties leading up to Mardi Gras is called Carnival.

The day after Fat Tuesday, when all the nonsense is to stop and you are to begin a six-week period of trying to remember what you did and ask forgiveness for it, is called Ash Wednesday.

Ok, I’ll bite. What happens on Ash Wednesday?

In the church, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and reflection. It is also the first day of Lent on the Christian calendar.

Lent begins on Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, one will give up something during the Lenten season in commemoration of the 40-day fast Jesus Christ experienced in the Judaean Desert.

Lent lasts 40 days with the six Sundays that fall within the period being non-fasting days. It gets its name -- officially the “Day of Ashes” -- because of the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s forehead in the sign of a cross.

Why the name Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday?

The name is believed to have come from the practice of eating richer, fatty foods prior to fasting during the Lenten season.

How is the date for Mardi Gras determined?

You better sit down for this one.

The date of Mardi Gras is determined by the date of Easter. Mardi Gras falls 47 days before Easter.

Easter is the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, or ecclesiastical full moon, which is the first full moon on or after March 21.

The earliest Easter can be is March 22. It was last on that day in 1818 and will not be on that day again until 2285. The latest Easter can be is April 25. It will be that again in 2038.

That would make Feb. 3 the earliest Mardi Gras can be and March 9 the latest it could fall.

I hear Mardi Gras has its color scheme. What is it?

The official colors of the Carnival season in New Orleans and most other places are gold, purple and green. Gold for power, purple for justice and green for faith.

When did the celebration first start in the United States?

Well, this is where some controversy comes in. While New Orleans is known worldwide for its Mardi Gras celebration, history tells us that the first continual Fat Tuesday observance likely began in Mobile, Alabama, in 1702 and was hosted by French settlers along Mobile Bay.

What are you supposed to do on Mardi Gras?

The consensus is that you should party as much as you can because Ash Wednesday and Lent are coming.

Some of the most famous Carnival season/Mardi Gras celebrations are in South America. The Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is considered the largest in the world. In Columbia, the Barranquilla carnival starts on Saturday and continues until Ash Wednesday.

Europe also celebrates. In Cologne, Germany, Karneval is marked with role-playing celebrations that include a prince, a farmer and a virgin. In Italy, they stick to the script and put on a more traditional Fat Tuesday celebration.

Of course in America, New Orleans is synonymous with Mardi Gras and letting good times roll. Weeks of parades, balls and street parties mark Carnival in the Crescent City.

What’s that saying I hear from New Orleans concerning Mardi Gras?

Laissez les bon temps rouler ( lay-zEh leh bAwn taw rOO-leh) means “Let the good times roll!”

Sources: Catholic online, Mardi Gras New Orleans, Christianity.com

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