The Surprising Christian Roots of Mardi Gras
By Aaron Ross
February 28, 2017
Aaron Ross is a Lecturer of Theology at Southeastern University and current Ph.D. student at University of Birmingham (the one in England). His part nerd, part theology, and part random ramblings can ... Read More
Today is Mardi Gras. Pictures and videos of parades, tons of food, lots of alcohol and many “other” things are soon to begin emerging from the seemingly nonstop party happening in New Orleans today (and well into the night).
From the outside it may seem that Mardi Gras is just one big party and another excuse to overeat and drink, there is a lot to know behind the scenes of such a famous day—including the surprising Christian connections.
Mardi Gras is French for ‘Fat Tuesday.’
However, Mardi Gras typically refers to a longer period of time that starts on January 6th, a day known as Epiphany for Catholics. Epiphany is known as the day in which God revealed himself to the world through Jesus Christ. Mardi Gras is actually more of a season that starts on Epiphany and goes through Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras, a bit like Easter and Christmas, is disputed in its Christian origins.
Whereas there are “pagan” elements to both Christmas (like Christmas trees) and Easter (like the Easter bunny), Mardi Gras may have had its roots in pagan celebrations of spring time and fertility. There is some history to suggest that before a period of fasting (such as Lent), Romans would spend a day overindulging in the things they would have to give up during their fast.
For others, Fat Tuesday was a feast that was thrown to use up all the food in the house that could not be eaten during Lent, like oil, butter, meat and eggs. Better to eat it all on one day than to let it go to waste!
Mardi Gras isn’t just about New Orleans.
The Big Easy is not the first place Mardi Gras was celebrated, nor is it the only place that it is still celebrated. Originally and alternatively known as “Carnival,” the season of celebration we usually call Mardi Gras may have started in Rome, but is now also celebrated in places like Rio de Janeiro and Venice.
Catholics see this season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday as ‘ordinary time.’
Though Mardi Gras conjures up pictures of excess and sinfulness, Ordinary Time for the Catholic church is understood as a season of growth and maturing. It symbolizes, in some sense, the life of Christ (as opposed to the seasons celebrating His life and death). It is the period between Christmas and Easter (and then the longer period between Easter and Christmas) in which one learns to embody the life of Christ by dying to one’s self.
So what does all of this mean for Christians?
It’s pretty clear a lot of what we have come to expect of Mardi Gras the Bible clearly teaches are things to avoid, because they are not good for our relationship with God or with other people (drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, etc.).
Yet, there is something beautiful to the season of Ordinary Time surrounding the season of Mardi Gras. It’s easy for us to celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter because we have made really big events out of Jesus' birth and later resurrection.
But if we’re honest, we often have a harder time celebrating the life of Jesus, even though it encompasses the majority of Jesus life. What would it look like if the Church was more intentional to embody the life of Jesus in all of the “ordinary” times in life?
Mardi Gras may have grown to represent more than the beginning of a season of fasting, but we have the choice as the Church to take these moments, these times like Mardi Gras, to reflect on the life of Jesus—it’s an opportunity to live not for our basest desires, but following the way of Christ.
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