Jessica Booth
Updated February 01, 2018 9:16 am
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Mardi Gras has a reputation for being one giant party. It’s often thought of as a celebration where you’re basically expected to get drunk, wear bright beads, and lose all of your inhibitions. That version of Mardi Gras is fun! But it’s not historically accurate. Mardi Gras has more history and meaning behind it than many realize, and it’s important to take that into consideration before celebrating.

So why does Mardi Gras exist in the first place?

Believe it or not, the celebration has some religious roots. It refers to Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when people are expected to indulge before a period of fasting begins. To really find the meaning of why this event exists, though, you have to go back to the beginning.

This event has been around a long time. According to the official site, it can be traced all the way back to medieval Europe. Historians say that Mardi Gras “dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia.” When Christianity became a thing in Rome, religious leaders took those two local traditions and made them one: Mardi Gras. The debaucherous celebration was a prelude to Lent (the 30 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday in the Christian faith). It spread from Rome to other parts of Europe, especially France.

Therefore, Mardi Gras exists as a last chance to indulge before the holy period of Lent. says that, traditionally, people would binge on meat, eggs, milk, and cheese, preparing for 40 days of fasting and fish. In France, this became known as Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras also refers to Carnival, which is the celebration period between Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas, on January 6th) and Fat Tuesday.

Today, the celebration still exists for that reason. There aren’t as many people who follow the strict fasting and dietary rules of Lent, but the holy period is still widely celebrated in some way. Fat Tuesday is known as the day to indulge in all of the “bad” stuff before Lent begins. That explains why Mardi Gras is often thought of as one big party, full of food, drinks, and a sort of reckless feeling.

This year, Mardi Gras falls on February 13th —although Carnival has been going on for weeks. Ready to celebrate? Same.