Here’s how New Orleans writer Jordan Flaherty explained it in Outlook’s Five Myths about Mardi Gras:
Yes, Fat Tuesday commemorates a day of excess before the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. But Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint. It starts with Twelfth Night (Jan. 6, also known as Epiphany, a Christian holiday commemorating the wise men’s visit to newborn Jesus) and continues for several weeks, officially ending at midnight Ash Wednesday.
If you’re still in search of the deeper meaning behind Mardi Gras, take a look a Catholic writer Danielle Bean’s 2011 explainer of all things pancakes to parades:
Christians first observed the traditional celebration of Mardi Gras, also known as “Carnival,” years ago, when eggs and milk were among the foods forbidden by the church during Lent. Feasting on rich foods, such as pancakes, made with eggs, milk, sugar, and butter was a practical way to use up your stores of these items while enjoying one final “feast” before beginning forty days of penance. Today, the Catholic Church does not forbid the consumption of eggs and milk during Lent, but the tradition of indulging before fasting remains. Cakes, doughnuts, and sweet pastries are traditional Mardi Gras fare.
King cake, named for the three kings who brought gifts to Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, is a traditional treat between the feast of the Epiphany, where we celebrate the three kings, and Ash Wednesday. It’s a rich cinnamon-roll style cake, drizzled with sugary frosting, and decorated with brightly colored sprinkles. A small figure of a baby, representing Jesus, is often baked inside, and the person who gets the piece with the baby is considered “King”’ for the day.
Burying the Alleluia
“Alleluia” is a joyful word of praise that is removed from the Catholic liturgy during Lent to emphasize our focus on fasting and penance. Many families observe a tradition of “burying the Alleluia” just before Lent by printing the word on paper or fabric, placing it in a box, and burying it. The “Alleluia” is then unburied and prominently displayed at Easter.
Parades and Dancing
A parade with masks, dancing, and brightly colored costumes and floats is another Mardi Gras tradition. Most Americans are familiar with the kinds of events that take place in New Orleans each year, but many European and Caribbean countries also observe this tradition. The joy of the dancing and the colors of the costumes are seen as one last “hurrah” before the penitential season begins.
Yellow, Purple, and Gold
The traditional colors associated with Mardi Gras, especially in New Orleans are purple, green, and gold. These are meant to represent justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold).
I am grateful for the way the contrast of feasts and fasts in the Catholic liturgical year reflects the cycle and balance of the natural world. As we are reminded in Ecclesiastes 3:1: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.”