okay, let’s start with the real basics here. “mardi” is french for tuesday, and “gras” is french for fat. ergo, “mardi gras” together means fat tuesday. please don’t be insulted; you’d be surprised how many people—new orleans natives, no less—have no idea of the meaning of these words (or even that their city was founded by france…le sigh…but this is another story for another blog).
now… why is it called fat tuesday? well, mardi gras is a christian-based celebration that originates from the tradition of enjoying rich, decadent (or, to belabor the point, fatty) foods on the eve of lent. this was done because lent is a period of penitence, self-denial, and even fasting carried out either in preparation for baptism (in more ancient times) or as commemoration of the death and resurrection of jesus (i.e. easter) in more modern ones.
sooooo…date-wise, you have easter—which occurs on the sunday after the first full moon that follows the vernal equinox—from which you count back forty days, the length of the season of lent (the first day of which is ash wednesday), and then you go back one more day, and there you have fat tuesday. whew. so the date of mardi gras depends on the date of easter and can, therefore, fluctuate wildly. this year it was february 16; next year it isn’t until march 8!
in new orleans, as soon as christmas and new year’s are over, mardi gras season begins. i got back from the holidays, and gone were the wreaths and trees and bells and bows. in their place was everything mardi gras in its official colors of purple, gold, and green. smiling, open-mouthed masks beckoning one and all to the monster’s ball of christianity. live it up today, folks, for tomorrow…you might wake up catholic! :-P