Call it Shrove Tuesday and it’s a day of confession. Call it Mardi Gras and it’s a night of wild revelry. Either way, both take place February 17 this year, and serve as a reminder of America’s rich ethnic stew—make that jambalaya—that dates to the early days of settlement in Louisiana.
For the French, Mardi Gras—literally, Fat Tuesday—is as entrenched in New Orleans as beignets and lost bread (that’s French toast to the rest of us). And about as far removed from the Puritans of New England as you can get.
In fact, as Gary Krist relays in his new book, Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, at one point in early twentieth-century New Orleans, one faction of the city even hosted a Mardi Gras ball whose king and queen held court in what we’ll call houses of ill repute.
Forgiveness wrapped in fun
Although there is a tug of war between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, as to which city first celebrated Mardi Gras, it’s New Orleans that has come to be synonymous with it. After all, it was a French explorer who, in 1699, coming upon the Mississippi River near present-day New Orleans, named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. He knew that back home in France that day they were marking Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove is from “to shrive,” to confess and be absolved from sin. As early as the Middle Ages, Christians practiced this custom as a run-up to the beginning of Lent, the forty days of repentance preceding Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, so Tuesday became the day to confess and to temporarily bid adieu to the flesh—or carne vale, from which comes carnival, a hallmark of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities.
Just about any food worth enjoying was banned during Lent, so Shrove Tuesday became the day to use up all the yummy ingredients like butter so they wouldn’t spoil, and have a tasty feast in the process. That’s why Shrove Tuesday is also known as Fat Tuesday, for those soon-to-be-sinful fatty ingredients.
Regardless, it would be a sin not to celebrate Mardi Gras and the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of the city that made it famous in America. You’ll have plenty of time to repent later.