When we think of Fat Tuesday, images come to mind of swaying, spangled hips swinging down the streets of Rio, or of high-spirited revelers draped in green and purple beads carousing in throngs in New Orleans, or of masked and costumed parades winding through the narrow medieval passages in Venice. Wherever Fat Tuesday is celebrated, in its delightful excess, its jubilation and unbridled sensuality, one thing’s for sure: it doesn’t seem a religious holiday!
Yet, Fat Tuesday, which is the literal translation of the French Mardi Gras, is the last burst of celebration and enjoyment before Lent begins, leading (in 40 days) to Easter. The day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Fat Tuesday because cooks would use up all their stores of fat and sugar on that day. This way, when the Lenten sacrifices began, no one would be tempted to give in!
Like many other holidays, Fat Tuesday’s origins pre-date the Catholic Church by centuries. In the ages before clocks, time was more easily tracked with the lunar calendar. When Europe moved to the solar calendar (from the Julian calendar), there was a gap. So, in order to synchronize the two calendars, a few days were spent celebrating. They were thought of as “a time out of time,” and then (as is still the case in Brazil and other nations) became known as “Carnival.”
In these ancient days, life was socially stratified. Everyone was born into a role and had to obey the limits of their station in life. This, naturally, led to resentment. However, this period of celebration “between times” was a way to safely let off steam, for rules to be briefly thrown off and overturned. The least of men would be King for a day — costumes were used to disguise social class and everyone was free to run wild. Workers and peasants could dance, feast and play all day, until Carnival was over. When the Catholic Church came to power, they incorporated the spirit of Carnival into Fat Tuesday.
In the famed, ecstatic celebrations in Rio and New Orleans, there are still vestiges of life turned upside down, where the powerless and poor can reign for the day, bedecked in feathers and lamé, presiding over the crowds with the beauty of their dance, or their physical beauty itself. For a day, a poor girl from the favela can samba herself into a star. And then, at the very stroke of midnight, the police push the dancers and the roaring crowds off the street to mark the beginning of Lent.
In America, the French brought the celebration to New Orleans. The French paraded in their fabulous masks and costumes along the streets going to and from masquerade parties. When the area was briefly under the control of the more staid and strict Spaniards, they banned the frivolities because of their sinful undercurrents of delight and extravagance. After the Americans bought the land, they eventually lifted the ban in 1827.
The parties and parades have continued to grow through the years, until the celebration became the rollicking fun we know today. The festivities are now celebrated in many American cities, not as a continuation of tradition, but as a way to make money from partying crowds. Still, if you feel like drinking or doing the samba on Fat Tuesday, you’re simply celebrating the spirit and tradition of centuries. So give a whirl. Go ahead, dance!