Mardi Gras falls on March 4th in 2014. As it is commonly understood, Mardi Gras is a raucous celebratory affair that serves as a final shebang before the 40-day abstinence of Lent, but there are several key characteristics of this holiday that may have gotten lost in transition.
1. Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," is the culmination of Carnival, which by its latin roots means the "removal of flesh/meat." Author Greg Tobin writes that, due to lack of refrigeration, Christians often abstained from dairy and meat products altogether during this period -- which of course would make for much leaner Carnival season than people today celebrate.
2. Mardi Gras only became a holiday in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII placed it on his Gregorian calendar on the day before Ash Wednesday. The holiday arrived in North America in the late 17th century with the LeMoyne brothers who had come to defend France's claim on Louisiana.
3. That said, Mardi Gras may have roots in pagan spring festivals that date back thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia both included traditions of feasting and masquerades, which are components of the modern Mardi Gras festival, too.
4. In some countries Mardi Gras is called "Shrove Tuesday" after the term shrive, which means "to confess." This refers to the unofficial custom of going to confession on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday as a way of shedding sin and guilt before the spiritual journey of Lent.
5. Perhaps most famously celebrated in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, Mardi Gras is a highly international holiday. Some of the other major celebrations take place in Germany (as "Karneval"), Italy (as "Martedi Grasso"), Trinidad (as "J'Ouvert"), and Mexico (as "Martes de Carnaval").