Is Mardi Gras really a day in New Orleans and Rio when people just get stupid drunk and do obscene things in the streets? I used to think so, even back in the days when it was relatively tame in New Orleans, at least in the “family” sections of town…But the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday carries so much more meaning to it. In other times people lined up to go to Confession on Shrove Tuesday. Not so much anymore…
The day before the beginning of Lent is known as Shrove Tuesday. To shrive someone is to hear his acknowledgement of his sins, to assure him of God’s forgiveness, and to give him appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression “short shrift”. To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to his excuses or problems.
On Shrove Tuesday, many Christians make a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs they need to repent, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth they especially need to ask God’s help in dealing with. Often they consult on these matters with a spiritual counselor, or receive shrift.
Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi=Tuesday; gras=fat, as in “pate de foie gras”, which is liver paste and very fatty), because on that day a thrifty housewife uses up the fats that she has kept around (the can of bacon drippings, or whatever) for cooking, but that she will not be using during Lent. Since pancakes are a standard way of using up fat, the day is also called Pancake Tuesday. In England, and perhaps elsewhere, the day is celebrated with pancake races. The contestants run a course while holding a griddle and flipping a pancake. Points are awarded for time, for number and height of flips, and number of times the pancake turns over. There are of course penalties for dropping the pancake.