Centuries ago, Mardi Gras was the last blowout before 40 days of fasting and solemnity. Meat was forbidden during Lent, so during the Mardi Gras and Carnival--the word carnival comes from the Latin phrase for "farewell to flesh"--families used up the meat in their larders.
Now, few people stop eating meat during Lent, but Mardi Gras and the Carnival period leading up to it are a $600-million celebration in New Orleans.
Lent is the liturgical season in Christianity that precedes Easter, which celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus. It begins each year on a Wednesday, called Ash Wednesday, and is a time when Christians are called to repentance and reflection.
Many Christians fast for various lengths of time during the 40-day period, and others renounce worldly interests. On Ash Wednesday in some churches, the clergy apply ashes in the shape of a cross to the foreheads of congregants to remind them that life on Earth is fleeting and they will "return to dust."
In New Orleans, the Mardi Gras party peaks the day before, called Fat Tuesday. It falls on Feb. 28 this year and includes a Catholic feast that is an official holiday in much of south Louisiana.
Originally, to allow families to use up their meat, there was a whole fat weekend--Fat Thursday, called Jeudi Gras, Fat Sunday, or Dimanche Gras, and Fat Monday, or Lundi Gras.
It all climaxed with the roistering excesses of Mardi Gras, but even that celebration is tamer than it used to be. These days, excesses generally are limited to drinking and eating too much.
But then, Lent is not nearly as rigorous as it used to be.
"By the 14th and 15th Century, it (forbade), in the opinion of most priests, laughter, so there was no laughing or joking during Lent," said Denis Janz, who teaches the history of Christianity at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Many bishops also frowned on sex during Lent.
"We know this because parish birth records for nine months after Lent go way down. In an era with no birth control, this indicates that people were trying to abstain," Janz said. "By the way, the birth records show that nine months after Easter Sunday, the birth rate went way up."
Medieval priests and bishops encouraged people to give up as much as possible, to encourage a penitential state of mind while they went over the sins of the year so they could list them at their annual confession.
"After 1215, it was a rule of church that people had to confess once a year," Janz said. "By the late Middle Ages--the 14th and 15th centuries--most people confessed only once a year."
This confession often was on Good Friday, so that people would be shrived, or made clean of sin, for the high holy day of Easter--the one day a year on which most people took Communion.
"To make it a good confession, it has to be complete. You can't leave anything out," Janz said.
Some things never change: The stringency of Lenten sacrifices depended on the piousness of the person. The most observant, for example, might eat only bread and water one or more days a week.
Now, Janz notes, Lent is only a pale shadow of what it entailed during the Middle Ages. "For most Catholics, it means not eating meat on Friday," he said.
But even today, Lent still means more in this area than a Mardi Gras hangover.
"On the streets of New Orleans on Ash Wednesday, you'll see many people walking around with ashes on their forehead. It's not purely secularized," Janz said. "It still has religious meaning to many people."