If it’s the city of New Orleans Louisiana, it’s got to be Mardi Gras, right? It’s like ladies’ hats at the English Ascot: it’s a beautiful sight, but no one knows a lot about it. The parades, the dancing in the streets (isn’t that a song?), the colorful costumes all combine to make us wish we were there and partied, too. But what’s it all about? Glad you asked.

Mardi Gras, for the uninitiated, is Catholic for “party hearty before the requisite abstinence period”. Religion has less to do with Mardi Gras than even Catholics think. The celebration goes back thousands of years to before even the Jewish nation was born. It is a celebration of the fertility of spring.

Pagans celebrated the four seasons at the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice, the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice. These had to do with the successful growth of the crops, the bearing of the livestock, the harvest and the Winter season when the sleeping Earth was preparing herself for rebirth in the Spring. February, mid-Winter in Europe, was a celebration that spring was right around the corner. Called Imbolc, it was celebrated with what was left of the harvest. It was a time of gaiety and hope that Spring was near.

When the Church was established, it did so without authority at all. There was no inducement to join. The Church found it easier to incorporate pagan rituals and holy days into its regime than to fight it. The Winter solstice celebration became Christmas. The Spring equinox celebrations became Easter, named after the goddess of Spring, Ostara. In February, the Imbolc celebration turned into Mardi Gras.

Now, you’ll need some definitions. Mardi Gras is a Catholic celebration before the 40 days of Lent when worshippers pray and fast for the forgiveness of sins before Easter. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.” It means to gorge on meat, dairy and fun before Ash Wednesday leading up to Lent. The term is also called Carnaval. This is Latin for “Carnevale,” or farewell to meat. So Mardi Gras is the last gasp of fun and good food before a period of fasting and prayer.

Celebrated: debauchery. Not only eating, drinking and sex but sometimes death to the one chosen to embody it all was the Romans’ idea of a good Mardi Gras. It was called Saturnalia and Lupercalia in Rome, and Carnaval and Mardi Gras in other Christian lands. Today, no one is killed in symbolism, but a good time is had by all.

The most noted Mardi Gras celebrations are New Orleans Louisiana, Rio de Janeiro, the Cayman Islands and Trinidad among others. Famous people noticed at Mardi Gras include cast members of NCIS: New Orleans, Mariska Hargitay, Jennifer Coolidge, Kid Rock and Big Boi.