What Exactly is Fat Tuesday?

If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) somewhere firsthand. You heard incredible music, ate amazing food, and danced in the streets — all day and all night. But you still don’t know the real meaning of Fat Tuesday. No problem. Grab a cafe au lait and a piece of king cake. Here’s the surprising story:

The Calendar

First of all, Mardi Gras is technically only one day even though the festivities last way longer. Traditions of feasting and revelry date all the way back to pagan times with celebrations signaling the start of the spring equinox, fertility rites, or other significant events.

Once Christianity arrived as the new faith, many pagan rituals either disappeared completely or merged with new traditions blending in with the story of Christ. Since old habits die hard, it was easier for the early Roman Catholic Church to allow the faithful to continue their frivolity but with a new spin.

The Fat Tuesday story starts with January 6, King’s Day, also known as Epiphany, as recorded in the Christian calendar. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King’s Day refers to the Magi, or Three Wise Men, who appeared in baby Jesus’ stable with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That day is important for Mardi Gras. It’s 12 days after Christmas and is considered the beginning of the season for merriment and feasting leading up to Lent and Easter Sunday.

But here’s the tricky part where the Christian calendar and the pagan observance intersect. The first full moon after the spring equinox supplies the date for Easter Sunday. In 2019 Easter falls on April 21, meaning that the fun starts on King’s Day and ends on Fat Tuesday (March 5), a day before Ash Wednesday. So, you have nearly two months to throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care because once Lent starts — the party is over.

The Party Before Lent Begins

Many religions observe periods of fasting and spiritual atonement. Muslims observe Ramadan, while Jews take part in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Christians mark Lent with 40 days of fasting and spiritual reflection reminiscent of Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the desert.

Mardi Gras is that last day to party and eat as much rich food as you want before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The holiday allows you to do “fat eating” for that one day before the 40 days of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter Sunday.  Think of it this way — it’s human nature to whoop it up before settling down to prayer, abstinence, and plain food.

Other countries also mark the last day before Lent with another name — Shrove Tuesday. Shrove comes from the Old English word, shrive, meaning “to absolve.”  In fact, Shrove Tuesday is known in some countries as “Pancake Tuesday” or “Pancake Day.”  In the U.S. Fat Tuesday is associated with the French influence in Roman Catholicism, which influenced the descendants of French settlers in Louisiana, or in the original location for Mardi Gras — Mobile, Alabama. But Shrove Tuesday is more roundly observed by a variety of Christian denominations, including Anglicans and Lutherans.

Good Eatin’ and King Cake

If you go to Mardi Gras, take this word of advice — leave your diet at home. For most of us who think of Mardi Gras, especially in New Orleans or Mobile, Fat Tuesday means great food.  Traditional Mardi Gras fare is really food of the region including tasty beignets, humongous po’ boy sandwiches and muffulettas, spicy jambalaya or gumbo packed to the gills with Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage, and crawfish. Don’t forget about your creole crab cakes, red beans and rice and, of course, anything fried.

Another big part of Mardi Gras food binging is eating a king cake. Food historians believe that this food tradition arrived from France around 1870. King cake references King’s Day, when the Magi brought gifts to Jesus.  As a king cake is prepared, a small plastic baby, representing the infant Christ, is baked into the cake. When the cake is served during a party, whoever finds the baby is “king” for the day. According to custom, the king has to host the next party and provide the next king cake. Traditionally, king cakes are part of the festivities for Lundi Gras, or Fat Monday, before Mardi Gras begins.

So that’s the story of Fat Tuesday. It should give you something to think about when you’re chowing down in New Orleans, Mobile, Brazil, or any of the cities around the world that celebrate Mardi Gras.