Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, celebrated this year on February 16, is a Christian tradition so fervently embraced by the city of New Orleans in the southern United States, that the two have become almost synonymous. It arrived in the region in the late 17th century with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste, when King Louis XIV dispatched them to defend France's claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The expedition reached the mouth of the Mississippi on Lundi Gras – Fat Monday, March 2, 1699 – proceeded up the river and made camp the following day at a spot which lies about 100 kilometres downriver from the present location of New Orleans. It was Fat Tuesday, so the brothers christened it Point du Mardi Gras.
The festival predates the reformation and is celebrated across the globe, taking on the character and beliefs of the locals. Some say the Lenten fast which it precedes may have been introduced for practical reasons; the forty days before Easter were also the last days of winter in the northern hemisphere; no new crops were expected, so for most it was a hungry time. Fat Tuesday was in effect a last chance to eat. The English name for the holiday, Shrove Tuesday, is derived from the archaic verb "shrive" meaning “to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of confession and doing penance”. Other languages are more forthright in their description of the festivities, which are marked by the consumption of as many calories as possible, usually in the form of fat and sugar, in preparation for the fast which begins on Ash Wednesday. In Hawaii, it is Malasada Day, after the fried doughnuts introduced by the Portuguese workers on the sugar plantations in the 1800's. Large batches of malasada were made to use up stores of sugar and fat. The Icelanders call the day Sprengidagur or Bursting Day, presumably to describe the effect it has on the stomach, although unlike other countries, whose Christian populations feed on cream-drenched pastries and pancakes, they gorge themselves on salt meat and peas.
Irish mannequin in a store window during Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 6, 2008. Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.