The Day After Fat Tuesday

The day after Fat Tuesday begins with suffering and self-sacrifice for many people…suffering from a hangover and a sacrificing of much needed sleep in order to make it to work on time. Somehow, I think many of us might be missing the point. For many, Fat Tuesday (English for Mardi Gras) seems to be just another reason to stay out late, drink heavily, expose ourselves, and commit all types of RAI (Random Acts of Immorality). And somehow it’s all excused because hey… it’s Mardi Gras!

Nobody likes to poop on a party, but it is quite obvious that we have lost sight of the true meaning of the festivities. If I thought that this next point would be contested by many, I might actually do a survey to verify it. But if we were to ask the average crowd on Bourbon Street during a Mardi Gras celebration, “What day is tomorrow?” I am willing to bet that many of them would not really have a clue what we were really asking. Midnight on Fat Tuesday is not just the end of the party, it’s the beginning of something much more significant and much more important. It’s the beginning of Lent. The day after Fat Tuesday is Ash Wednesday .

The whole purpose of Fat Tuesday is to feast in order to prepare for the fast of the 40 days of Lent. Traditionally, the feast consisted of fattened calves, dairy, eggs, fat, etc. that all had to be used up before Lent because the fast of Lent required abstaining from those things. This was back when the observed fast was generally stricter than just the “no meat on Fridays, etc.” that it is currently in the United States today. Fat Tuesday also marks the final day of the Carnival festivities, which comes from the words “Carne Vale,” meaning “farewell to the flesh.”

So the spirit of Fat Tuesday is one of preparation for the Lenten season to come. It is a farewell to the flesh. It is about preparing ourselves to die a little more to ourselves during Lent through fasting and abstinence in order to prepare for Good Friday and Easter, the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And since Easter is the climax of the Christian calendar, it deserves preparation. It is the Easter event that we celebrate most as Christians and, as Catholics, on a smaller scale every Sunday at Mass. So it is only appropriate that we prepare ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually to participate fully in the sacrifice and redemption of the cross. And we should do this for the celebration of the Mass each and every Sunday, but most especially for the Easter Mass. This Easter preparation is what the Church calls Lent.

The early Church, in its wisdom, evolved many of the pagan festivals and holidays existing during that time and turned them into Christian celebrations instead. This was because it was more difficult to kill existing traditions and begin new ones than it was to just change the meaning of the existing traditions. So what it did was take something that had strayed from God’s desires and converted it to a new meaning that pointed it back to God. (Which is pretty neat because that’s exactly what Christ came to do for us; He didn’t come to condemn our hearts, He came to convert them.)

Similarly, Fat Tuesday has its roots in hedonistic pagan rituals and celebrations, but the Church came and gave deeper meaning to them. It said, yes, be thankful for all these things you have, celebrate those, but here is Who you should be thanking: Jesus. And go ahead, live it up and be silly and happy. Fill yourselves with all of this wonderful food tonight, because tomorrow… tomorrow we fast and abstain for 40 days. Tomorrow we prepare for the real and ultimate fulfillment, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior. Tomorrow we prepare to receive the eternal food, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And of course with this new Christian purpose, even with all of the feasting and merriment prior to Lent, it was not an excuse to sin. It was a call to conversion from sinful traditions. It was just as much a call to repentance.

Unfortunately, currently we find ourselves very much back in that same situation. Most Mardi Gras celebrations today are a closer resemblance of the ancient hedonistic festivals than the Christian preparation for Lent that they are supposed to be. As Catholics (and other Christians who practice Lent), we must partially blame ourselves for allowing this holy time of year to be overshadowed by a drunken, over-indulgent, high-jacking of our own celebration. Like the early Church Christians, we have to give it meaning again. We have to point it back in the right direction — toward God. We have to allow ourselves to be converted and then work for the conversion of others. We shouldn’t wake up the day after Fat Tuesday suffering from a hangover. We should wake up immersed in the suffering and self-sacrifice of Lent. And everyone should know what day comes after Fat Tuesday.

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  • dove4near

    Thank you! This is exactly what I was thinking as the celebration of Mardi Gras was mentioned on NBC News this morning. We have once again become a nation of pagan rituals, especially the younger generation.

    For those who still observe the holy season of Lent, I apologize, I don’t mean you. I pray that we will, as a nation, observe this season of Lent as the Catholic Church intends it to be. In this time of turmoil and uncertainty, we, more than ever, need to turn to God with prayer and sacrifice.
    May you have a holy and prayerful Lenten season.

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  • digitaldeacon

    I am originally from New Orleans and now live 70 miles North of the city. I take exception to this article because to paint Mardi Gras with a broad brush that all that happens is silly drunken, over-indulgent sin is incorrect. I have been to many parades and Mardi Gras days and have never done what was implied. Today I attended a parade in a small town of Bush, Louisiana which my daughter, son in law, grandchildren and great grandchildren where in the parade. We were there because like many others there, it is a family celebration. I saw no one drunk or doing anything that was sinful. I will admit that there are those in New Orleans who get drunk and do things they should not be doing, but to imply that everyone is there to do something sinful is untrue because for many, many people it a fun family event no different than the New Years Day Pasadena Parade, or any other parade around our country.

  • athanase

    When it comes to holidays and culture, there are a lot of people who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you are visiting Louisiana, I invite you to attend a family oriented parade–in Baton Rouge it would be the Mystic Krewe parade, or in the New Orleans area your best bet is to attend those parades in the suburbs like Metairie or on the West Bank, or even go to the small towns like Houma and Morgan City. If you go to Eunice you can observe the courirs de Mardi Gras–revelers on horseback who collect chickens for the gumbo. Use common sense and avoid the abuse in the French Quarter. Mardi Gras is no more an offensive holiday than Halloween, Christmas, or New Years. Be proud of your Catholic heritage.

  • Enjoyed the article Matt. Unfortunately I think that sometimes the farther outside New Orleans you get the more pagan the celebrations become. Not everyone everywhere falls into this category- some of us do know what day is after Mardi Gras. But you are right everyone should. Have a Happy Mardi Gras and a Blessed Lent.

  • c-kingsley

    I was once in Nice, France, when their “Carnival” was actually during Lent. They didn’t bother to move it around with the Church calendar anymore.