Fat Tuesday: Last call before Lent

Fat Tuesday, a.k.a., Mardi Gras, has a reputation for the raucous, but the celebratory season before Lent’s fasting and repentance … Continued

Fat Tuesday, a.k.a., Mardi Gras, has a reputation for the raucous, but the celebratory season before Lent’s fasting and repentance has deep religious roots.

Here’s how New Orleans writer Jordan Flaherty explained it in Outlook’s Five Myths about Mardi Gras:

View Photo Gallery: Carnival season is prime time for the celebrated Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans to show off their inspired guises.

In the United States –and New Orleans in particular –Mardi Gras (literally, “fat Tuesday”) reigns, but around the world, the pre-Lenten holiday has parallels to Carnival festivals.

If Fat Tuesday is all fun and games, that’s because the next day, Ash Wednesday, launches the more somber liturgical season of Lent, during which many Christians fast and focus on Christ’s suffering.

If you’re still in search of the deeper meaning behind Mardi Gras, take a look a Catholic writer Danielle Bean’s 2011 explainer of all things pancakes to parades:


Christians first observed the traditional celebration of Mardi Gras, also known as “Carnival,” years ago, when eggs and milk were among the foods forbidden by the church during Lent. Feasting on rich foods, such as pancakes, made with eggs, milk, sugar, and butter was a practical way to use up your stores of these items while enjoying one final “feast” before beginning forty days of penance. Today, the Catholic Church does not forbid the consumption of eggs and milk during Lent, but the tradition of indulging before fasting remains. Cakes, doughnuts, and sweet pastries are traditional Mardi Gras fare.

Deb Lindsey


WASHINGTON, DC- February 23: King Babka Cake photographed on February 23, 2011.

King Cake

King cake, named for the three kings who brought gifts to Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, is a traditional treat between the feast of the Epiphany, where we celebrate the three kings, and Ash Wednesday. It’s a rich cinnamon-roll style cake, drizzled with sugary frosting, and decorated with brightly colored sprinkles. A small figure of a baby, representing Jesus, is often baked inside, and the person who gets the piece with the baby is considered “King”’ for the day.

Burying the Alleluia

“Alleluia” is a joyful word of praise that is removed from the Catholic liturgy during Lent to emphasize our focus on fasting and penance. Many families observe a tradition of “burying the Alleluia” just before Lent by printing the word on paper or fabric, placing it in a box, and burying it. The “Alleluia” is then unburied and prominently displayed at Easter.

Parades and Dancing

A parade with masks, dancing, and brightly colored costumes and floats is another Mardi Gras tradition. Most Americans are familiar with the kinds of events that take place in New Orleans each year, but many European and Caribbean countries also observe this tradition. The joy of the dancing and the colors of the costumes are seen as one last “hurrah” before the penitential season begins.

Yellow, Purple, and Gold

The traditional colors associated with Mardi Gras, especially in New Orleans are purple, green, and gold. These are meant to represent justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold).

I am grateful for the way the contrast of feasts and fasts in the Catholic liturgical year reflects the cycle and balance of the natural world. As we are reminded in Ecclesiastes 3:1: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.”


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • DeLaHelias

    Of course if your native language is English, the last day before the beginning of Lent is not “Fat Tuesday”, which is a translation of the name of the day in French, but Shrove Tuesday, the day on which you are shriven of your sins.

    If you are Anglican, especially high Anglican, the Lenten rules, which you have noted the Roman Catholic Church no longer observes, are still observed by the Anglcians. So milk and eggs and meat are still verboten come tomorrow, amongst other things — including any mentions of the A word, cited above.

  • sdotrich

    Mardi Gras has its origins in Mobile, AL in the U.S.

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