Mardi Gras is just a month away, and I'm sure that down in New Orleans, the planning is in high gear. But while the Mardi Gras celebration in the Big Easy may have had its roots in French Catholic customs, it's hard to regard it as a religious holiday anymore.
For Catholics, however, Mardi Gras cannot be separated from Ash Wednesday and the penitential season of Lent, which gave rise to "Fat Tuesday" (which is what Mardi Gras means in French) and its associated excesses.
In times past, Catholics observed the full 40 days of Lent with very strict fasting and abstinence. Mardi Gras was the final day before Lent began, and perishable items that couldn't be consumed during Lent—meat, dairy products, and even eggs—were made into various goodies that the faithful would not see again until Easter.
Today, in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, the Lenten fast is considerably less strict (though the various Eastern Catholic Churches maintain, with some variation, the traditional strict fast). But the pre-Lenten celebration of Mardi Gras remains.
If you're planning a Mardi Gras celebration, make sure to check out these traditional Fat Tuesday recipes for Mardi Gras, prepared by About.com's Food Experts. And if you don't have the time to put a Mardi Gras celebration together this year, you can plan ahead by looking up the date of Mardi Gras in future years in When Is Mardi Gras?
(Ruby Gallagos holds a handful of beads before the start of the Excalibur Mardi Gras parade February 17, 2006, in Metairie, Louisiana. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)