Mardi Gras is best known as a raucous event that takes place in New Orleans, LA and other areas around the world in January and February. Fat Tuesday, the final day of Mardi Gras, can occur in March depending on the calendar year and how it corresponds to the Christian liturgical calendar. While Mardi Gras may be legendary for scantily clad costumes, delicious food, overflowing spirits, and many acts of debauchery, many people -- particularly non-Christians -- may not know what the celebration is truly all about.
Roots of this holiday actually lie in the Christian calendar. Mardi Gras is supposed to serve as the last day in a period of merrymaking that historically takes place during the Carnival season. For many Christians, that Carnival period starts with the Epiphany, or when it was revealed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, which occurs a few days after Christmas. The tradition of the King's Cake, or a cake baked with a coin, bead or plastic baby doll inside, that is common during Mardi Gras, has its origins in Epiphany celebrations. The "King' symbolizes the Christ child. Fun and good cheer continue during the next month, and the merrymaking eventually reaches its pinnacle on Mardi Gras. The actual name "Fat Tuesday" comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival. To the very religious, Mardi Gras is also called "Shrove Tuesday," from "to shrive" or hear religious confessions before Lent.
Many may wonder why good times must end on Mardi Gras and not continue thereafter. That's because Christian Mardi Gras is the final day before Lent begins. Lent is a period of 40 weekdays that, in the Christian Church, is devoted to fasting, abstinence and penitence. The traditional purpose of Lent is to prepare believers for the annual commemoration of how Jesus gave up his life for his followers, and the miracle that was His Resurrection, and his eventual ascension into heaven. Participating in the Lenten season is a practice that is common to the many sects of Christianity, including Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists. It has also slowly gained favor with other denominations that have historically not participated in Lent.