In 2012, February 22nd marks Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the Christian season of Lent, forty days of dedication and sacrifice in preparation for the Easter holiday. The start of Lent, however, indirectly created another holiday: Fat Tuesday. This is the day before Ash Wednesday and has become an occasion to celebrate and indulge before giving up certain foods during Lent. Traditionally, sweets and fat have been a common item for Christians to abstain from during Lent, so Fat Tuesday became the day when they would have a final taste of their favorite treat before giving it up.
Fat Tuesday has developed different names over the world. It is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Shrovetide, in England and in some religions, from the word “shrive,” which means to gain forgiveness for sins through sacrifice. Another common name for this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is Pancake Day because families would eat pancakes in order to use up milk, butter, and eggs, foods that were frequently sacrificed from one’s diet during Lent. There is a long history of festivities celebrating Pancake Day in Great Britain and parts of the United States, including races where participants flip pancakes in frying pans while running.
Because there are so many different regions, national heritages, and ethnicity in the United States, there are many other versions of Fat Tuesday. In parts of Pennsylvania, it is called Fastnacht Day, named after a type of fried treat made from potatoes that is eaten on the occasion. Similarly, in many Polish neighborhoods and communities, it is called Paczki Day because of a small doughnut-type sweet, stuffed with a filling and topped with powdered sugar or glazed, called a paczki. For some Portuguese regions, it is known as Malasada Day, again named for a fried, sugary confection eaten on the occasion.
Of course, the most widely-known version of Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras. The French phrase literally translates to “Fat Tuesday,” as well, but Mardi Gras often refers to the whole period of the Carnival rather than simply the last day. In the United States, New Orleans has become synonymous with Mardi Gras, and it has continued to be an important piece of the city’s identity even as it rebuilds after Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the eating of rich and sweet foods (which may be crepes or waffles), Mardi Gras features many other unique celebrations, including bright masquerade costumes, public dancing, and musical performances. This all culminates in a long parade with elaborately decorated floats where the King of the Carnival throws candy or trinkets to the audience. Mardi Gras is also celebrated in many other locations in the U.S. and worldwide such as Rio de Janeiro and Haiti.