Mardi Gras 2018: How Christians Celebrate Fat Tuesday

Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday in French, is most often associated with wild parades, colorful costumes and plenty of alcohol and debauchery—but religion also plays a role in the festival's history.

Mardi Gras season officially begins on Epiphany, the Christian holiday that is celebrated on January 6. (It is celebrated in Latin America and Spain as Three Kings' Day.) Mardi Gras is also connected to the Carnival season, which countries like Brazil and Italy celebrate from the Epiphany until Mardi Gras.

The holiday is believed to have arrived in the United States when French explorers settled in the South during the 17th century. Some believe that Mardi Gras is connected to ancient Roman and pre-Roman pagan celebrations that mark the arrival of spring.

According to this theory, Mardi Gras dates back to pagan celebrations of fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia that included fertility rituals and animal sacrifice. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular traditions into the new faith instead of trying to outlaw them.

Others see Mardi Gras as a holiday unique to Christianity, having developed to ring in the Christian period of Lent, during which Christians are expected to abstain from eating meat and having sex.

The idea underpinning the holiday is that people should overindulge before giving everything up for 40 days. Leading up to Lent, Christians would eat all of the forbidden food that was left in their house so their home would be free of temptation during the fasting period—that's where the name Fat Tuesday comes from. The period of Lent begins the day after Mardi Gras, on Ash Wednesday, and ends on Easter Sunday.

Today, however, many Christians disagree on whether the devout should continue to participate in these rituals, given their association with excess, and whether the holiday should be included on the Christian calendar.