Why is there so much variation in the dates of Carnival or Mardi
Gras? This great celebration of life can occur between between February 3 and March 9; a
span of nearly five weeks.
Mardi Gras Day is also know as Fat or Shrove Tuesday. In the not so distant past, this day was something of a "last
call" before the expected reflection and abstinence of the Christian Lenten season.
Lent is the seven week period prior to the great Christian spring holiday of rebirth we
all know as Easter.
The reasons for the great
variation in Mardi Gras day can be explained by the custom of aligning the occurrence
Easter Sunday and then Mardi Gras annually with the Sun, spring full moon and the rhythms
of the magic number seven.
The first day of spring for
those us us who live above the Equator is usually March 21. This Spring or Vernal Equinox
is the first day of the year when night is not longer than day. From this point forward in
our calendar the sun will shine longer tomorrow than today.
Three months later the the
longest day of the year will arrive and be observed in many pagan celebrations. Summer
Solstice almost always occurs on June 21. The annual 365.25 day orbit of the earth around
the sun varies very little from year to year, however the thirteen cycles of the moon
waxing and waning are not so easy to predict.
Easter can fall on any Sunday
from March 23 to April 25 because it set to fall on the first Sunday succeeding the first
full moon after the Spring Equinox. Sunday as the seventh day of the week is considered a
day to pause and rest. This tradition of breaking life into seven day periods is many
thousands of years old.
Many are surprised to learn that
Easter Sunday is determined by planetary alignment yet many Church holidays were
determined by the established sacred traditions predating Christianity. Even more
surprising is to learn that this central Christian holiday traces its name to the not so
ancient European Spring Goddess Eostre.
The intersection of one of the
thirteen full moons with the calendar's twelve months is the factor which adds the
greatest variation to the Carnival season. The cycles of the moon control the tides of the
sea. The waning and waxing of these two elements has long considered a powerful source of
feminine energy just as the sun is considered masculine.
Finally, the first day of Lent,
Ash Wednesday is a function of 40 weekdays plus seven Sundays. The ancient Egyptians were
the first recorded culture which celebrated Carnival, setting aside five of the 365 days
of the year to restore harmony to their relationship with the gods of the universe. Known
as a time outside of time, the Egyptians would sing ribald songs, drink brew, and carry on
in torch parades where the women would hold aloft gigantic erect phalluses. The central
event would be a reenactment of the passion between Isis and her husband/brother Osirus
who was their god of rebirth.
These Egyptians possessed
remarkably sophisticated mythology that did not separate science from religion. They
believed that all things were cyclical with a central organizing pattern based upon a
circle divided into the twelve parts of the Zodiac. According to this system 2,160 year
long ages they would have first celebrated their carnival during the age of Taurus the
We have now passed
more ages and are presently on the
cusp of the Age of Aquarius. It is interesting to note
that neither of the two succeeding symbols of the last two ages the Ram (very popular in
the Bible's Old Testament) or the Fish (the symbol of Christianity for the last 2000
years) are particularly popular Carnival symbols. However the BOEUF GRAS - the fatted bull
is still alive and well as a potent symbol of Mardi Gras and other Carnivals throughout
Europe and the New World.
The Christian Church of Europe was never comfortable with the spring
impulse to abandon your repression, express your creative urges and give body to
your unspoken desires. However the tradition could not be outlawed without great
cost and eventually a truce was struck. In return for granting the holiday temporary
dispensation from the laws of the Church, the Carnival would occur in the cold
weather month of February well before the Church's mid-Spring Holiday in April. Also Lent
would prescribe a diet of no meat for good Christians until Easter Sunday occurred.
There is little written about this transition to Church acceptance
other than this was the point where this original celebration of the rebirth of life in
the annual cycle got its name from the Church. Carnival can be traced to its Latin
roots meaning Farewell (valle) to the Flesh (Carne).
Many centuries later the various European Carnival traditions would
become mixed with those of Africa and the original inhabitants of the American New World
giving birth to what many consider the world's greatest celebrations of the people.
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Septuagesima, third Sunday before Lent.
Sexagesima, second Sunday before Lent.
or Carnval Saturday. The three days before Ash Wednesday, which
was once a time for confession and absolution.
Sunday, Carnaval Sunday
before Ash Wednesday. Also Quinquagesima.
In Port of Spain Trinidad and New Orleans this day is better known by its French
name, Dimache Gras
Monday, Monday before Ash Wednesday. Also called
Rose Monday and
In Denmark, today is called Fastelavn.
In Germany and Austria today coincides with Fasching (or
Feast of Fools).
Tuesday, day before Ash Wednesday. Today is the last day of
Shrovetide, and a time of merrymaking before Lent. Also known as
and Carnaval Tuesday.
46 days before Easter . The Day of Ashes, is the first day of Lent,
occuring forty days before Easter not counting Sundays. The ancient custom on
this day is for the faithful to receive on the forehead the sign of a cross
marked with blessed ashes. The palms from the previous Palm Sunday are burned
and the ashes are blessed for the ceremony before the Mass.