1. Mardi Gras – While people think of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, (as yesterday’s celebration is also called) as a nonstop, drunken party, it’s really part of a deeply religious Catholic tradition in New Orleans (the feast before the fasting of Lent). It actually begins the prior month, on Twelfth Night or “Epiphany,” January 6th, commemorating the Wise Men visiting the infant Jesus and ends at midnight on Ash Wednesday. (Getty Images)
2. Lundi Gras – Everyone knows Mardi Gras, but there’s also the day before: Lundi Gras (Lundi being French for Monday, just as Mardi means Tuesday). Together, the festivals are infused with black traditions, including the crowning of a “King Zulu” and black Mardi Gras societies that date back to the 1800s in New Orleans. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
3. Carnival – Outside the U.S., particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, Carnival was adapted by the Roman Catholic Church from pagan Greek and Roman revelries. One, in which slaves and their masters switched clothes and partied for a day, is the mother of Mardi Gras. And like Mardi Gras, the colorful costumes and raucous celebrations mask a religious observance kicking off 40 days of fasting for Lent. (Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)
4. The wearing of ash – Because there are so few black Catholics, you won’t see many African-Americans walking around with a dab of ash on their foreheads. But in places like Haiti or Brazil, it’s much more common. The reason for the ash? Ash in biblical times was used as a sign of repentance. People sprinkled it on their heads and even in food and drink. Wearing the ash symbolizes people’s need to “begin again.” (Getty Images)
5. No meat on Fridays – Catholics traditionally celebrate Lent by giving up meat on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, and by eating just one meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, two days before Easter. Those are the fasting days designated by the church.
6. Self-denial – One of the purposes of Lent for Catholics is to encourage self-reflection and bring the celebrants closer to God, in part by denying oneself things normally enjoyed. But non-Catholics often get in on the Lenten denial, giving up chocolate, alcohol and other treats for Lent — though let’s face it, not everyone does the whole 40 days. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
7. Church – According to a 2011 National Black Catholic Survey, black Catholics, though small in number, are more engaged in their parishes than their white counterparts, with 59 percent reporting regularly attending services, compared with 35 percent of whites.
8. Reflection – From the Miami Times: “Since the 1970s, there has been a growing movement to recognize the contributions of minorities to the Catholic religion” — especially during Black History Month — including the fact that “three popes in the early church, Victor I, Miltiades (pictured) and Gelasius I were African.
9. Burying the Alleluia – This black Catholic tradition involves not saying “Alleluia” or “Gloria” during worship services, and symbolizing it by making a poster or artistic representation of the word, and literally burying or hiding it, usually around Ash Wednesday, and bringing it back on Easter. The practice dates back to the Middle Ages, when funeral processions, complete with coffins, were sometimes held. (Photo from Catholicicing.com)
10. The veiling of statues – Particularly in South America and the Caribbean, but also in New Orleans, the veiling of statues, including those of the Virgin Mary, is a long-held tradition, particularly among black Catholics. (Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
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Today is Ash Wednesday, the official start of the 40-day season of Lent, which leads up to Easter.
African-Americans make up only about 2 percent of American Catholics, according to the Pew Forum on Religion in 2007 — that translates to about 3 million black Catholics in the U.S., according to the National Black Catholic Congress, compared with some 68 million black Catholics in Brazil, the country with the most. There are 34 million in Nigeria, 28 million in the Congo and up to 6 million in Haiti (most Caribbean, South American and African countries are predominantly Catholic.)
Still, black American Catholics, along with many black Protestants (particularly Presbyterians and Lutherans, but also Baptists and other congregations) get in on the Lenten season. Here are 10 things you might not know about how black folks celebrate the start of the Easter season.