Q: I know “Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday”, and that it’s the day before Ash Wednesday. But many places start celebrating it so early, even weeks in advance! How did Mardi Gras start?
A: Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday”, is simply the last day of the long festival season called Carnival. Traditionally, Carnival starts on Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Lent. In Germany, the festival season (Fasching) begins on November 11 at 11:11 am, but the actual Karneval period begins the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, peaking on “Rose Monday”. In some areas, the season can begin as early as Epiphany (or Twelfth Night, January 6).
The origin of the festival name is disputed. Usually, it’s explained as derived from carne vale, “farewell to meat”, but many scholars believe that’s folk etymology. However, the festival is called Apokriés in Greek, which also means “farewell to meat”. Since there were Greek colonies founded throughout the Mediterranean basin, and some of the customs appear to have been carried over from pre-Christian times, it’s not unlikely that carne vale was translated from Greek.
It’s also probably due to the Mediterranean influence that the customs associated with Carnival never took hold further north in the British isles or the Nordic countries. In the United Kingdom, the day is known as Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Shrovetide (the week before Ash Wednesday), during which the lay people were expected to go to Confession prior to the start of Lent; the only known customs to have survived in any form since the Reformation are football games and pancake races.
Although, as I said, some of the Greek customs appear to predate Christianity, we don’t really know when Carnival got started. We do know the earliest recorded celebrations in the West were in Venice in 1268, and in Nice in 1294. However, pre-Lenten festivals sprang up in different forms throughout Europe, including Russia (where the festival is called Maslenitsa, after an old Slavic pagan celebration).
Ash Wednesday is the start of the penitential season of Lent. Originally, meat was forbidden throughout the whole forty days, as were dairy products, fats and sugar; the Eastern Orthodox still practice this Great Fast, forbidding even eggs. Festivals were forbidden, except by indult of the local bishop; in Germany, alcohol could not be sold.
When Europe was still a predominantly agricultural society, food wasn’t wasted, so anything that couldn’t be eaten during Lent had to be used up before Ash Wednesday. The need to empty out the pantry and wine barrels provided an excellent excuse to party! During this time, old folk customs that had languished in the rise of Christianity were effectively “baptized”, much like Easter eggs and Christmas trees—given Christian rationales that were eventually lost after the old pagan meanings had been forgotten.
The English, especially Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, were effective in stamping out such papist nonsense in the British Isles. However, wherever French, Spanish and Portuguese explorers, settlers and soldiers went, Carnival eventually followed. Although the celebration in certain areas can get pretty decadent, still, it’s gotta be said: Mardi Gras proves that Catholics know how to party down.
Laissez le bon temps rouler!