The concept of Fat Tuesday is inexorably tied to that of Lent, specifically the Lenten fast. It’s a tradition of eating very well before a long fast that begins the next day, which later on expanded into having a lot of colorful fun (the “carnival season”) before a period of Lenten solemnity culminating in Easter.

It’s a contrast between the plenty of a large meal and a lengthy fast and a wild party before a time of asceticism and devotion, and it’s in that contrast that the power of the holiday is gained or lost. What does it mean to pig out if that’s what you do every day, before and after? What does it mean to throw a wild party if that’s the extent of your usual weekend plans?

Fact is, we live in a society of excess, of plenty, where gluttony and partying are expected if not celebrated (and the “we” I refer to isn’t just the USA but the entire developed world). That’s one of the reasons that Mardi Gras, traditionally a very Catholic and very Latinate holiday, has made massive inroads into other groups: it’s become little more than a flimsy excuse to get smashed. Or, in the case of people for whom getting smashed is a weekly occurrence, getting really smashed.

You see that same impulse in the adoption of many holidays that, important as they may have been in other cultures, were obscure to the Western population at large. Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day…all observances with long and proud traditions that have been reduced to the status of Budweiser Holidays. In every case the underlying event–the lunar new year, the Battle of Puebla, the Catholic faith–has been rendered obscure by the haze of excess.

And, much as I’m loathe to admit it, I’m a participant in that milieu. I have never had the spiritual strength to give up anything for Lent, or to fast even in the midst of plenty. Even if I were Catholic and part of the tradition, the necessary duality between feast and famine, joy and solemnity, wouldn’t be there.

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