Mardi Gras literally "Fat Tuesday", is the last hurrah before the Catholic season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The name comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival.
What most people don't know is that this celebration relates back to the Christmas Season, through the ordinary time interlude known as Carnival. Carnival comes from the Latin, carne vale, which means "farewell to the flesh." Like many holidays and celebrations its roots are found in pre-Christian traditions based on the seasons. The season starts on Epiphany and ends with a huge celebration on "Fat Tuesday" or Mardi Gras.
Epiphany is also traditionally when celebrants serve King's Cake, a custom that began in France in the 12th century. Legend has it that the cakes were made in a circle to represent the circular routes that the Wise Men took to find Jesus. In the early days, a coin or bean was hidden inside the cake, and whoever found the item was said to have good luck in the coming year. In Louisiana, bakers now put a small baby, representing the Christ Child, in the cake; the recipient is then expected to host the next King Cake party.
There are well-known season-long Carnival celebrations in Europe and Latin America, including Nice, France; Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The best-known celebration in the U.S. is in New Orleans and the French-Catholic communities of the Gulf Coast. Mardi Gras came to the New World in 1699, when a French explorer arrived at the Mississippi River, about 60 miles south of present day New Orleans. He named the spot Point du Mardi Gras because he knew the holiday was being celebrated in his native country that day.
The official colors of Mardi Gras, with their roots in Catholicism, were chosen 10 years later: purple, a symbol of justice; green, representing faith; and gold, to signify power. By midnight tonight, all the festivities will be over, but the true challenge lies ahead, when we begin our 40 day Lenten journey which begins on Ash Wednesday.
Happy Mardi Gras!
Sources: American Catholic