Today is Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday, which signifies the beginning of the Lenten season. Shrove Tuesday can take place anywhere between February 3rd and March 9th (it’s actual date each year is dependent on the lunar calendar) but it is always 47 days before Easter. Because Lent is a time of sacrifice, which in the past included giving up meat, fat, eggs, and dairy, the idea behind Shrove Tuesday is to have a big feast. There are several reasons behind this: 1) It gave an opportunity to use up the last bits of foods that were then given up during the Lenten season, 2) People wanted to have a feast that would help them recognize even better the sacrifice they were about to make and 3) Somewhat in the spirit of residents of regions in cold climates prior to winter setting in or athletes bulking up prior to a major event, people would feast on a large amount of food in preparation for a time of fasting. In fact, in some regions it was common for people to eat as much as they possibly could on this day, sometimes indulging in as many as 12 meals!
Check out pancake recipes on my other blog, The Red Apple Tearoom: http://islandtearoom.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/pancake-day/
The term Shrove is derived from the English term “to shrive” which means to hear confessions. It was common in the past for parishioners to go to confession just prior to Lent beginning and in my church, Holy Week (the week from Palm Sunday to Easter) is filled with many many extra confession times so that we can unburden ourselves of our sins and face Easter with a cleansed soul.
In many places, it is traditional to accompany the cleansing of the soul found in confession with a housecleaning as well. This is where the tradition of spring cleaning came from. People went to confession first to clean their souls, then cleaned their kitchens (removing all the forbidden food items from it as the first step), and finally cleaned the rest of their homes. In the Ukraine, houses were even whitewashed both inside and out at this time of year. The idea is the same as the that of going to confession – to clean away any impurities to prepare for Easter, a time of rebirth and salvation.
As with many Christian holidays, Mardi Gras has roots back to ancient times as well. In Ancient Rome, a festival known as Lupercalia (also known as Februa for which the month of February was named) was held around February 15th in which the god Lupercus (god of agriculture and fertililty) was honoured and appeased in hopes for a fruitful planting season. The ideas of “spring cleaning” were present in this celebration as homes and cities were cleaned and purified to ward off evil spirits. This festival was very much a carnival atmosphere and involved feasting, drinking, dancing, and so on. Many of these customs were then incorporated into the celebration of Mardi Gras.
The colours of Mardi Gras are purple which symbolizes God’s justice, green which is representative of faith, and gold which reminds us of God’s power. The flamboyant costumes that most of us think of when we picture Mardi Gras celebrations such as those that take place in New Orleans, as with the feasting, are meant to be over-the-top because again, they are supposed to show a strong contrast to the time of penance and sacrifice of the Lenten season. Masks are usually worn and although I have never heard a specific explanation behind them, I decided to think of them as symbolizing the masks that we often wear in our lives and the need to strip away those masks, admit our faults, and work to improve ourselves as we are encouraged to do during Lent. The costumes, along with the traditional beads thrown from floats and balconies along Bourbon Street and other areas of New Orleans, are often made in these purple, green, and gold colours.
The custom of throwing beads and trinkets from the parade floats is thought to have its roots in a couple of different places. One is that there as a Renaissance tradition of having lords and ladies throwing mead and ale at those in attendance at their parties. The other is the Pagan tradition of throwing grains at their fields each spring to thank the gods for making it through the long hard winter.
A traditional Mardi Gras food served in New Orleans are King’s Cakes. They are essentially large cinnamon rolls or brioches that have been decorated with purple, green, and gold icing and/or sprinkles. Often, you can find these cakes with various fillings in them as well – apple, lemon, strawberry, cream cheese, and so on. The cakes were originally made round to depict the route taken by the Wise Men – a circular route that would confuse King Herod as he tried to follow them and determine Baby Jesus’ location but nowadays, you can find them in a variety of shapes, with oval seeming to be the most prevalent. Similarly to that of the traditional cakes served at Epiphany, there is a small plastic baby figurine hidden inside the King’s Cakes to symbolize Baby Jesus. It is considered very good luck to find the figure and the person who finds do so is designated as the host of the next party. Years ago this person was often designated as King/Queen of Mardi Gras – again very much like the tradition observed with King’s Cake at Epiphany. The similarity (in some regions they are identical) between the King’s Cakes and the traditions involving them served at Epiphany and at Mardi Gras are based on the fact that the Mardi Gras season is seen as beginning on January 6th (Epiphany).
I am not an expert at making pastries such as cinnamon rolls for King’s Cakes, so when my daughter was younger, we would simply buy a tube of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. I would place the rolls on a baking sheet and sort of “smush” them together so that they formed one loaf (round or oval is easiest). I usually made my own icing rather than using what was in the tube and divided it into three small batches so that I can tint each one – one purple, one green, and one gold (yellow) – with food colouring (you get the best colours from the paste type). We would ice the loaf – parts of it in each colour and then top it with sprinkles. You can buy sprinkles in each of these colours or you can use sugar and dye it in the appropriate colours. If you’d like to try making them from scratch, here is a recipe for King’s Cakes: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Mardi-Gras-King-Cake/Detail.aspx
Here are some cute craft projects and colouring pages for kids: http://www.holidays.net/mardigras/crafts.htm