Why Mardi Gras is celebrated, when Fat Tuesday 2023 takes place and more.
The words “Mardi Gras” are synonymous with extravagance and indulgence: big parties, large crowds, boisterous parades, colorful masks, and… did we say big parties? Although Mardi Gras itself is a single Tuesday, it’s part of Carnival, a larger, weeks-long celebration of never-ending carousing before the more solemn religious season of Lent and the preparation for Easter begins in the Christian faith.
Mardi Gras (and Carnival) is celebrated in cities around the world, but the most popular hotspot for the festivities are the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Rio de Janiero, Brazil. If you can't make it to either of those locations for Fat Tuesday 2023, you can still celebrate Mardi Gras with a delicious king cake shared amongst your friends! Here is everything you need to know about the season of Mardi Gras, including why it’s celebrated, when Mardi Gras 2023 is, how long it lasts and what Fat Tuesday means.
What is Mardi Gras?
French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras falls on the day before Ash Wednesday each year. Mardi Gras Day is the culmination of the Carnival season, a weeks-long party of excessive, over-the-top celebrations. There are parades, live music, festivals and balls held during Carnival, complete with colorful costumes, detailed masks, tons of delicious food and lots of booze!
What is Fat Tuesday?
During the 40 days of Lent, Christians focus on prayer and their relationship with God, typically by giving up or abstaining from something they enjoy (like chocolate or television) or making more of an effort to be kind and charitable. According to History.com, it was customary for followers to use up all the rich foods in their home in the days leading up to Lent—like meat, eggs, milk, lard and cheese—ahead of the 40 days of lighter eating and fasting. Calling this season of the winter “Carnival” also has origins in the tradition of fasting: “carnelevarium” means to take away meat in Medieval Latin.
According to Britannica, Fat Tuesday is also called Shrove Tuesday (because Christians in the Middle Ages would confess and be “shriven” or absolved from their sins on this day), Carnival Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday, since making pancakes used up many of the ingredients that were forbidden during the fasting season of Lent.
Is Mardi Gras the same thing as Carnival?
While Mardi Gras is often used to refer to revelries that take place between January and March leading up to Lent, Carnival season is the time period during which those raucous celebrations take place—with Fat Tuesday being the final night of festivities. Carnival officially begins each year on January 6, the Christian Feast of Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night or Three Kings Day. So, while Mardi Gras and Carnival both celebrate the same thing, Carnival spans several weeks (sometimes up to two or three months), and really ramps up in the last few weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, which is the last night of merriment. Think of it like the Christmas holiday season lasting from Thanksgiving weekend through New Year’s Day.
Why is Mardi Gras celebrated?
The history of Mardi Gras actually goes back centuries, to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility like Saturnalia, according to History.com. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders incorporated those popular traditions into the new faith. Since Christians are typically on their best behavior during Lent, the Carnival season and Mardi Gras became a time for people to let loose before the 40 days of inner reflection and repenting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday—getting out of their system everything that is forbidden during Lent. Modern-day Carnival and Mardi Gras have evolved into more secular celebrations, but the spirit of revelry and debauchery is just as fierce!
How long does Mardi Gras last?
While Mardi Gras is often used interchangeably for Carnival (especially in New Orleans), Mardi Gras is technically only one day: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The Carnival season, however, always begins on January 6, which is the Christian holiday of Epiphany or Three Kings Day. How long it lasts can vary year to year, since the date of Ash Wednesday fluctuates depending on when Easter Sunday is.
Is Mardi Gras only celebrated in New Orleans?
Mardi Gras is a legal holiday in the state of Louisiana and is celebrated throughout the state. The bon temps in the French Quarter of New Orleans are arguably the most famous, but Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Lafayette and the Cajun Bayou are just a few of the Mardi Gras festivities in Louisiana. But other states in the U.S. celebrate Mardi Gras as well, like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Missouri, New Mexico and California, to name a few.
Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations are also very popular in Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Colombia, Belgium, Martinique, and the Rio Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is considered to be one the biggest celebration in the world.
Related: Mardi Gras Facts
When is Mardi Gras 2023?
Fat Tuesday is always 47 days before Easter. In 2023, Mardi Gras will take place on Tuesday, February 21, with Lent beginning on Wednesday, February 22.
When is Mardi Gras next year?
The Fat Tuesday dates for the next several years are as follows:
• February 13, 2024
• March 4, 2025
• February 14, 2026
• February 9, 2027
• February 29, 2028
What does King Cake have to do with Mardi Gras?
One of the iconic parts of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the sweet, buttery pastry known as king cake. Tied to Carnival season begins on Epiphany, the seasonal treat typically shows up in bakeries around January 6 for Three Kings Day and sticks around until Fat Tuesday, just before Lent begins. Today’s king cakes have a tiny plastic baby baked inside, but the tradition began with a bean or a pea baked inside the cake. Centuries ago, whoever received a slice of cake with a pea or bean got to be king or queen for a day, symbolizing that their year was beginning with good luck. The little plastic baby inside modern king cakes is a nod to the three wise men who visited Baby Jesus on Twelfth Night, and it is tradition for the person who finds the baby in their slice to host next year’s Mardi Gras party and buy the king cake.
Why are masks worn during Carnival and Mardi Gras?
During the early Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations, revelers wore masks and elaborate costumes to remain anonymous while mingling with different social classes and participating in activities they wouldn’t normally do, like drinking, dancing and gambling. Today, Mardi Gras-goers around the world still enjoy the tradition of donning masks as they shed their inhibitions and take part in the spirit of the party—because nobody knows who you are when your face is covered by a masquerade mask! Plus, the decorative and colorful facial coverings add to the magical spectacle that is Mardi Gras.
While wearing a mask is an optional part of most Carnival celebrations, it’s actually a requirement in Louisiana for participants on a Mardi Gras parade float! In fact, it’s illegal in the state to wear a mask (certain exceptions such as Halloween aside) unless it’s Mardi Gras. And on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, a city ordinance decrees that all masks must be removed after 6 p.m.!
Next, check out these things to give up for Lent this year.