It is astonishing that anyone would partake
in such widespread debauchery without knowing its roots or
Mardi Gras which actually translates as Fat Tuesday, is only
one aspect of the pre-Lent phenomenon generally known as carnival,
carnevale or carnaval. One of the best representations of this
festival is portrayed in the work of the 16th-century Flemish
painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In his painting The Fight between
Carnival and Lent, Bruegel captures the opposition between the
excess of the three-day sin binge of carnival and the austerity
of the 40-day period of fasting and piety known to Catholics
Bruegel presents carnival as a pagan festivity, a view supported
by many Catholic scholars who note that the Anglo-Saxons of early
Europe observed a period of fasting and abstinence in preparation
for the spring equinox. The word Lent, in fact, comes from the
word lenten which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “originally
meant no more than the spring season.”
When the Catholic faith came to dominate the continent, the
church appropriated the celebrations as a way to “conciliate the
Pagans to nominal Christianity,” according to Alexander
Hislop, author of Two Babylons.
A little manipulation of the calendar allowed Catholicism to
take the well-known celebration of the early European people
and establish it as part of a religious commemoration of the
40 days that led to the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The most interesting part of this meshing of beliefs lies in
the three days that preceed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Catholic
Lent. Known generally as Mardi Gras due to the increasing popularity
of the New Orleans celebration of that name.
Carnival, etc., according to AmericanCatholic.org, all stem
from the Latin “carnem levare” and the Italian “carne
valem,” which mean “farewell to the flesh” and
which denote a brief period of heavy feasting, drinking, love-making,
and general merriment before the fasting, abstinence, and somber
mood of Lent.
These feasts exist nearly everywhere Catholicism exerts its
heavy influence, most notably in New Orleans, Louisiana;
Cologne, Germany; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.