Bring Mardi Gras fun into your classroom with three easy lesson plans combining art, social studies, critical thinking, and physical education.
Mardi Gras is a largely secular celebration with a religious history . If you want to explain the background of the day, you’ll need to begin with Lent. Lent is a Christian observance marking the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting. Many Christians spend the 40 days before Easter fasting in some way in remembrance of that. The Catholic church in particular historically required people to give up meat and to eat little during Lent. Now, there are specific days of fasting for Catholics, and meat is not eaten on Fridays during Lent. Some Christians choose to give something up (such as TV, a favorite food, or a bad habit) or to take something up (good deeds, for example, or reading every day) as a “Lenten sacrifice” or “Lenten discipline.”
Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday” in French, is the last day before Lent starts. That’s the day people would traditionally make sure to eat up all the eggs, butter, and other luxurious foods they had on hand so they would not be tempted by them during Lent. Mardi Gras was therefore a special day for indulging in whatever they were planning to give up for Lent.
In communities with large Catholic populations, like New Orleans, Mardi Gras became a public holiday with parades and big celebrations. Now it is celebrated by many people who don’t observe Lent. Get in on the fun with these lessons.
Masks are a traditional feature of Mardi Gras and a great art project, whether you make it simple or complex. Print and cut out some Mardi Gras masks for each student to decorate.
Other online resources:
- The Holiday Spot has some fun ideas for Mardi Gras masks. The fish is especially clever.
- Another classic, papier mache, with photos.
- Jan Brett’s printable animal masks are a fun way to practice cutting skills, and you can use them year-round to act out folktales and stories.
Make a fast and fun Mardi Gras bulletin board with your masks. Add Mardi Gras beads.
Lent is observed around the world, so Mardi Gras is also an international holiday. It’s not always called “Mardi Gras,” though. Use a Venn Diagram to compare this holiday in four different countries:
- Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” is celebrated in many countries, including the United States, where New Orleans is the epicenter of the celebration. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.” It is the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Since the Lenten fast required giving up rich foods, Mardi Gras was the day to eat up all the rich foods in the house — thus, Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras in the United States is celebrated with parades including floats, costumes, and music. Since 1872, the official colors of Mardi Gras have been green, gold, and purple. Beads in these colors are thrown by the people in the parade to spectators.
- Shrove Tuesday is another name for Mardi Gras, and the one most often heard in England as well as in many parts of the United States. Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Pancake Tuesday” for the same reason it’s called “Fat Tuesday” — making pancakes let the household use up eggs and butter before Lent began so they wouldn’t go to waste. A pancake race is traditional (see below).
- In some countries, such as Germany, Shrove Tuesday has things in common with the American Hallowe’en — costumes and going house to house begging for treats are part of the celebration. German speaking countries call it Fasching, and elaborate costumes are an important part of the tradition.
- Carnival is a lot like Mardi Gras, with parades and floats. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a city known for its Carnival celebrations. Learn more about Brazil with our Amazon rainforest lesson plans, or go online for tourist information about Rio’s festival.
Finding a four-way Venn diagram may be the most difficult part of this plan. Lucidchart has a good resource. Venny, an interactive tool, will create a diagram with ovals rather than circles, which actually gives you a more geometrically correct result. We like to challenge students to create their own.
Then have students identify the elements of each celebration that are the same, those that are shared only by some, and those that are specific to one country. Start students off by having them place celebrations, masks, and races into the correct spaces on their diagrams. Then have them work together in small groups to add as many more elements as they can. Four-way Venn diagrams can be quite challenging to figure out. If your students are up to it, though, you can have them research the celebrations in New Orleans, Olney (UK), Munich (Germany), and Rio de Janeiro for more details.
For younger students, go with Pancake Day. Mardi Gras is International Pancake Day every year.
There is an old English rhyme for Shrove Tuesday:
- “Shrove Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, poor Jack went to plow,
- His mother made pancakes; she did not know how.
- She tossed them, she turned them, she burnt them so black,
- She put too much pepper and poisoned poor Jack.
Thread-a-needle, thread-a-needle, e-i-o!”
This rhyme is used to play Thread the Needle, a nice whole-body game for the classroom.
A Pancake Race is traditional, and you can have one in your classroom. Gather up some old aprons for fun, divide the class into teams, and give each team a skillet. Put a pancake (a paper circle will do) into the skillet, and have the first team member run to the finish line and back, flipping the pancake in the air. Pass the skillet to the next runner. A dropped pancake has to be picked up and returned to the skillet. This feat requires dexterity as well as speed.
Add some pancake activities for early childhood, using Tomie de Paola’s Pancakes for Breakfast and Eric Carle’s Pancakes, Pancakes!
Try a traditional English recipe for pancakes especially for Pancake Day. Classroom cooking is great for math and early science, and pancakes can easily be made in an electric skillet.