A lot of people know all about Mardi Gras – the big party that lasts about 300 days in New Orleans. But apparently some don’t know where the celebration came from, so I’ll try to explain.

Mardi Gras (pronounced gra – like bra) is the time before Lent. Lent is not what collects in the screen of your dryer, though there are some similarities which I don’t have time to get into right now.

No, this Lent is a religious observance in which Catholics and Episcopalians and probably some other Christians get together and have a church service and get black ashes smeared on their foreheads to remind them they need to wash their faces, especially behind the ears.

Actually, that’s only one reason, the other has to do with mortality and the fact that we all came from ashes and we will return to ashes. Plus ashes are a sign of repentance – we are visually saying we haven’t been the best we could be, and we’ll try to do better. In the meantime, giving up our candy, alcohol, and/or iPod for the next six weeks will help remind us to stay on track. Ask any Catholic what they gave up for Lent and they know exactly what you’re talking about.

I love almost everything about Lent. This sounds crazy, but I like having a heavenly hand slapping mine when I reach for the chocolates. That doesn’t really happen (usually), but the threat of it is enough to keep me on the straight and narrow, so I always lose weight during Lent. Saying no to something you crave and lust over for six weeks gives you a certain intestinal fortitude. Which makes me wonder, where does an intestine get fortitude? I’d certainly like to explore this, but I must press on, because there’s one thing about Ash Wednesday I’m not so sure about.

It’s the incense. Why do we have incense? I consulted Google who, unfortunately, wasn’t very clear on the subject. Basically we do it because it’s a pleasing aroma to God, it represents repentance, we’ve been doing it for at least the last 1200 years, probably longer, so why stop now, and/or it was the early worshippers’ form of deodorant. According to one site, the practice may have started among the Jews and early Christians because they lived in a very hot climate without showers and Right Guard. Perhaps the early priests saw them dropping like flies (also attracting them), and decided they’d better burn some incense if they wanted parishioners to stick around until the end of the service.

Yesterday at church someone put a big hefty dose of incense in a wooden pot and walked up the center aisle of the church very slowly. Brides go faster. It was quite solemn, except incense is made from aromatic wood which, when lit, puts off that thick, curly smoke that swirled around all the way up to the ceiling. There was so much incense burning that the poor guy holding the vessel was completely encased in smoke – a virtual abominable smokeman. As he walked, the smoke wafted even more into his face, and I expected him to start gagging any second. It’s probably why he walked so slow. By the time he got to the front, the entire church was filled with smoke. It looked like a seedy bar with statues. I leaned over and whispered to my daughter, “This is some crazy goin’s on.” She gave me the evil eye because it was so quiet everyone heard me, and she gets tired of me embarrassing her. As for me, I just knew the fire alarm was going to go off and the sprinklers would drench us all.

All in all it was a good service, and I came to fully appreciate the incense when a man squeezed in beside me. He might have just come in from the desert, if you catch my drift.