Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday,” is celebrated annually on the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Catholic Church.
Mardi Gras and Easter. The date of Mardi Gras moves each year depending on what day Easter Sunday falls. Easter Sunday does not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar used in much of the world. In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea declared that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday following the vernal equinox. Easter Sunday occurs between March 22 and April 25. Because the 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays as part of the 40-day total, the day of Mardi Gras takes place 47 days before Easter Sunday. The date of Mardi Gras takes place between Feb. 2 and March 9.
The Carnival season. Most are familiar with the Mardi Gras celebration as a hedonistic free-for-all that kicks off 40 days of denial. The origins of Mardi Gras coincide with the Carnival celebration, still common throughout Catholic parts of Europe, and has ties to Christmas. The Carnival season begins on Jan. 6, or Day of Epiphany, and marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus after his birth. In cultures that celebrate Carnival, the Day of Epiphany launches a series of parties that lead up to the ultimate celebration that takes place on Mardi Gras. The length of Carnival season varies, depending on when Mardi Gras falls.
The origins of Mardi Gras. The celebration of Mardi Gras in the spring stems from its ancient origins. According to History.com, a celebration similar to Mardi Gras dates back to ancient pagan festivals that celebrated spring and fertility. These festivals included the raucous Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Europe became Christianized, leaders felt that abolishing the licentious celebrations would prove too difficult. A more convenient option was to co-opt the holidays, tone them down and make them part of the new Christian tradition, with the most obvious day for letting loose being the day before the beginning of Lent.