Reclaiming Carnival


We are in the midst of the season of Carnival right now.  It will culminate next Tuesday on what various cultures call Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday.

Like another upcoming holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, this is a festival of the Church which has been stolen by our secular culture that’s obsessed with eating, drinking, and making merry.  To say the purpose of the celebration has been lost is an understatement. You can even find people celebrating Mardi Gras well past Ash Wednesday, which always makes me scratch my head. But we shouldn’t let the way our culture has corrupted these celebrations to discourage us from celebrating them. We need to take them back and show our children and neighbors what true celebration really looks like.

As most people know, Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” – is the celebration of the eve of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  Contrary to what I used to think, “Fat” Tuesday doesn’t refer to what happens to my waist line after I gorge myself with chocolate.  It refers to the fact that it was a time to eat all the food containing animal fat.

Lent used to be (and for many of our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters, still is) a time of fasting from all animal products, including meat, dairy products, and eggs.  The community would gather together in the last few days before the fast began to share what they had so it wouldn’t go to waste.  This is where these days get their various names: Carnivale (“farewell to meat”), “Fat Tuesday,” and in parts of the British empire “Pancake day,” because people would make pancakes from the eggs and dairy they needed to eat up.

You may have also heard the expression “Shrove Tuesday,” which comes from the Middle English term for confessing one’s sins.  That gets to the heart of what these days of Carnival should be preparing us for. It’s not a time to rack up as many sins as we can before Lent starts! It’s a time to recognize that our lives are full of fasting and feasting – some days more than others – and to find the plan of God in both. Sadly, Mardi Gras has become a time of drunkenness and debauchery.  It should be a time of pleasure, yes. It should be a time of partying and having fun before Lent starts. But a time of sin? Um… no.

It’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with having a good time.  1 Tim 4:4 reminds us that everything created by God is good, and we are supposed to receive these things with enjoyment, thanksgiving and prayer. In this section in his epistle, St. Paul is rejecting heretics who say we aren’t supposed to enjoy the things of the world.  On the flip side, however, Paul also condemns drunkenness and immorality (Galatians 5:19-21). Virtue is found in the mean, in the middle of extremes.

We should be enjoying these days.  Perhaps we could return to celebrating them as a community, sharing our surplus and having a meal together.  Maybe it is a time to share ideas about how we will be observing Lent, finding an accountability partner, or finding ways we can fast as a family or a community. It can be a time to educate our children and friends about what these days are supposed to be about and how we can use them to prepare for the season of Lent.

The upcoming days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving will require moderation and sacrifice.  These days of Carnival are not about living immoderately, but about celebrating the gifts of God, especially those gifts from which we are about to sacrifice.  Forty days from now, we’ll be ready to celebrate again – not immoderately, but righteously, with the virtues and habits we have acquired over the Lenten season.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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