AmericanCatholic.org defines Mardi Gras as
Mardi Gras, literally "Fat Tuesday," has grown in popularity in recent years as a raucous, sometimes hedonistic event. But its roots lie in the Christian calendar, as the "last hurrah" before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. That's why the enormous party in New Orleans, for example, ends abruptly at midnight on Tuesday, with battalions of streetsweepers pushing the crowds out of the French Quarter towards home.In years past, I've always had a vague idea of the significance of Mardi Gras. My parents called it Fat Tuesday... and it's a day where people party hearty one more time before the beginning of Lent. As a child, I was fascinated by my Catholic friends giving something up for Lent. Yet I didn't understand why.
What is less known about Mardi Gras is its relation to the Christmas season, through the ordinary-time interlude known in many Catholic cultures as Carnival. (Ordinary time, in the Christian calendar, refers to the normal "ordering" of time outside of the Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter seasons. There is a fine Scripture From Scratch article on that topic if you want to learn more.)
Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning "farewell to the flesh." Like many Catholic holidays and seasonal celebrations, it likely has its roots in pre-Christian traditions based on the seasons. Some believe the festival represented the few days added to the lunar calendar to make it coincide with the solar calendar; since these days were outside the calendar, rules and customs were not obeyed. Others see it as a late-winter celebration designed to welcome the coming spring. As early as the middle of the second century, the Romans observed a Fast of 40 Days, which was preceded by a brief season of feasting, costumes and merrymaking.
I recall one friend giving up all meat for Lent. She went so far as to inquire as to whether or not the school's doughnuts had been fried in animal fat. At the time I thought that was a little "overkill". Today however, I respect her dedication and diligence! As for my "Mardi Gras" celebration, I'll eat plenty of chocolate, prepare for the next 40 days of Lent, and look forward to Spring and the beauty and renewal of the Easter season... specially after all this snow.