The Story Behind Fat Tuesday And Mardis Gras

Fat Tuesday and Mardis GrasWell, tomorrow kicks off the Lenten Season in the religious world and that means today is considered “Fat Tuesday”.  It’s sort of an odd name for a holiday or event and you’d think people might be offended by it.  I know in my case, every Tuesday is a Fat Tuesday (along with Wednesday, Thursday, the weekends, etc…).  There is actually a lot of significance behind the day that is lost on most people.  So, tonight, while you are out drinking, partying, and throwing beads, you might want to consider the history behind all of the hub bub.  Here are five stories behind Fat Tuesday.


When I think about Fat Tuesday, visions of Mardis Gras and Carnival are the first things to come to mind.  However, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro don’t corner the market on festivities.  In fact, Mardis Gras is literally translated as “Fat Tuesday”.  So how old is it?  No one knows for sure, but it was designated as the day before the first fasting season for early Christians.  On this day, Christians would indulge – or more often, over indulge – in all of the things they were going to give up over the next forty days before Easter.  Before Fat Tuesday, which is a term given to the day by peasants, people used to refer to this holiday as Shrove Tuesday.  Shrove is the past tense of the word shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of confession and doing penance.  The week before Ash Wednesday was known as the Shrovetide.  All of this probably originated from the Roman festivals that went on centuries before the Catholic church was established.



Fat Tuesday often sees people going to parties dressed up in costumes – and in particular, masks.  The reason for this is because of superstition.  You don’t want God to know you are over indulging before the fasting season so you disguise yourself to fool Him.  More likely, you didn’t want people to know who you were when you were up to no good.  It wouldn’t be seemly to be sitting in church the next day if your partying got a little out of hand.  The masks were also made to represent the inner personality of the person who was wearing them.  Finally, the masks represented equality.  When you were behind the mask or in costume, it didn’t matter if you were a commoner or a king.  You were just another party goer in a mask.  Celebrities use this anonymity today to celebrate in the elaborate parties without revealing their identities.



Bead throwing actually began in the 1920s. Private clubs, known as krewes, were in charge of the parades. Moving across the streets, they would hurl cheap beads at the crowds. The practice caught on, and today it has become an integral part of carnival festivities. Most of the time beads thrown are made of glass, but nowadays some use plastic or other material.  The idea of women flashing their breasts to get the beads is not a new tradition, either.  This comes from ancient Rome, where during the Lupercalia (we talked about this holiday before – it occurred usually around Valentine’s Day), Roman priests would toss animal skins out to the crowds and if a woman was touched by the skin, it would induce fertility.  In an attempt to be noticed, the women would flash their breasts, claiming they wanted to be pregnant.  As breast flashing became commonplace, it followed that women (and men) started wearing scanty outfits at the carnival. Its origin as a fertility ritual has been well established.



Many people go after certain, fattening foods during Fat Tuesday.  One of these, is the Punchki (or Pączki) – a Polish powdered doughnut filled with a fruit or cream flavoring.  It can be found through many large communities (with Polish Catholics) across the Midwest.  In the United Kingdom and many other countries, the day is often known as Pancake Day. Making and eating such foods was considered a last feast with ingredients such as sugar, fat and eggs, whose consumption was traditionally restricted during the ritual fasting associated with Lent.  Other foods include the German Fastnacht (Fast night) – a type of fried potato dough and syrup, and Portugese Malasadas – a pastry made with sugar and lard.  So why all the fatty foods?  Well, other than the reason that you’d be giving these up for the next forty days, it was a way to use up all of the bad stuff that was sitting in your cupboards.  Plus that, they were good to eat!



The reason is the same reason that Easter isn’t the same time every year.  They are floating holidays, based on the cycles of the moon (which doesn’t sound very Christian, but that’s another story).  In this case, Fat Tuesday is forty-one days before Easter, which is always placed on the first Sunday following the full moon (Paschal Moon, as it is called) which occurs after the Northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox.  It’s a mouth full, but that’s how they figure it out.  Fat Tuesday can happen anytime between February 3rd and March 9th.  This year, it is pretty late.  That only means that Fat Tuesday might be a bit warmer for you to celebrate, depending where you are, so go out there and have a fun time tonight.  Just make sure you keep it safe!