How to Have a Rightly-Ordered Mardi Gras
When we hear “Mardi Gras,” most of us think of parties, costumes, immodesty, drunkenness, and debauchery. But this does not need to be the case! In fact, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is a Catholic celebration, which we should celebrate in a healthy and rightly-ordered manner.
Mardi Gras is a goes under many names. “Madi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday.” This refers to the last day of eating rich foods with animal fat or butter. In some languages, the Tuesday before Lent begins is called “Carnival” (sometimes referring to the entire season of preparing for Lent). Carnival comes from the Latin “carne levare” meaning “to remove meat.” Another name for this day is “Shrove Tuesday.” The word shrive means “to absolve,” referring to the custom of making a confession of one’s sins this day. Finally, some call it “pancake day” because pancakes were cooked and eaten to use up the sugar, eggs, and milk that could not be eaten during Lent.
The names for Fat Tuesday point us to several important realities. First, the need for repentance. The Season of Lent is the most somber, penitential, and austere of the Church’s year. It is dedicated to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Historically, this was the time of preparation for catechumens, as well as penance for penitents who had sinned and wished to be restored to the Church’s fold. Gradually, all the faithful took up the practice of fasting during lent. The weeks leading up to Lent thus became a popular time to make a good confession before doing penance for those sins for 40 days.
Second, many of these names point to the severity of the Lenten fast which our Catholic ancestors observed. In modern days, many of us choose a simple penance like giving up sweets, television, or alcohol, along with Friday abstinence from meat. But consider the ancient practice of the Church during lent:
• One meal per day was permitted on weekdays, taken in the afternoon or evening. • Meat was prohibited every day, other than fish
• “Milk-meats” or animal products were also prohibited, such as milk, butter, cheese, and eggs • In the East, the faithful abstained from wine and oil
• Festivities and amusements such as hunting and even weddings were put on hold
It’s no wonder then that a custom of celebration arose in the days leading up to this austere time. There was a real need to use up meats and richer foods like meat, milk, and butter. Lent was severe! Some festivity and relaxation were a healthy, and even childlike way of bidding farewell to mirth. This fits well with the authentic Catholic view of created things. Things like meat,
sweets, rich foods, alcohol, and other entertainments are God’s excellent gifts! It is good to enjoy them. It is our disordered attachment to them that is the problem and which we are meant to fight during the fast.
It is true that Mardi Gras does not find expression in the Church’s liturgy. However, the Church does include a different celebration in her official prayer which has a similar theme. It is Laetare Sunday. Laetare Sunday, similar to Gaudete Sunday in Advent, falls closest to mid-Lent, which is the Thursday before. Here the Church acknowledges that men and women need to pause and be refreshed amid the long campaign of penance they undertake. Thus elements of joy and celebration enter the liturgy, and it was customary to relax slightly the laws of the fast at mid Lent. Mardi Gras should be for us a similar occasion of celebration which serves to encourage us to observe Lent well.
What are some practical ways to celebrate Mardi Gras in a rightly-ordered way?
The first is to make a good confession today. Take extra time to examine your conscience. Using a detailed examination of conscience can be helpful, like the one found here: https:// www.beginningcatholic.com/catholic-examination-of-conscience.
You might use this opportunity to identify specific sins to confess, as well as sinful patterns and tendencies you wish to focus on rooting out during our 40 day fast. This will allow us to undergo penance in a fruitful way and to prepare our hearts for the glories of Easter.
The second is to plan out Lent. Hopefully, we’ve started planning already. But it’s better late than never to make a concrete plan for our resolutions and penances. If you have already made a lenten resolution, review your plan today and make any final adjustments to be ready for Ash Wednesday.
We should remember that the Church binds together fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Fasting, apart from being a fitting penance, naturally produces a saving of money and of time. Eating one meal a day instead of three, if we choose to do so, should take up about 1/3 of the money and 1/3 of the time. It is fitting to give this money to the poor, who are hungry all year, and not just during Lent. And we should give this extra-free time to God by means of prayer.
The third is to celebrate! It is human to enjoy God’s gifts, especially the ones we are about to deprive ourselves of voluntarily. But this is no occasion to sin. If part of our lenten plan is to root out a specific sin, I am not recommending indulging in it of course. But even if we are giving up a licit pleasure like food or alcohol, Mardi Gras is not an excuse to be gluttonous or to get drunk.
One idea is to invite some friends for a Mardi Gras party. Go to confession together before. Then have everyone bring something they are giving up this Lent to share with the group. This is sure to be a good party, as people tend to give up things like cookies, cake, meat, and beer. Just
resolve not to over-do it. At the end of the night, pray night prayer together, the last liturgy before the start of Lent. Perhaps also plan to get a decent night of sleep, since the next day is Ash Wednesday, and Catholics between 18 and 59 are required to fast!
Other ideas are to make traditional Carnival treats like pancakes, king cake, jambalaya, or pączek. Bring them to work to share with others. You can even point out the Catholic history of Fat Tuesday and the importance of the approaching Lenten season.
Mardi Gras has its origin in preparing, spiritually and materially, for the greatest fast of the year. It is a thoroughly Catholic tradition, which unfortunately has become secularized and largely given way to sinful behaviors. We should reclaim this holiday by celebrating it modestly, soberly, and in a way that fosters joy and friendship.