Elaborate costumes are on display during the Krewe of Zulu Parade during New Orleans' 2012 Mardi Gras celebrations. Pat (Cletch) Williams/Creative Commons

What would any normal person do to kick off a month of fasting, self-denial and sacrifice? Indulge in everything creamy, sugary, fatty or salty, of course, in the revelry and festivities widely celebrated for Mardi Gras.

The holiday, known as Fat Tuesday in English, takes place this year on Feb. 17. It is celebrated all over the world, especially in countries with significant Roman Catholic populations. In the Christian tradition, it signifies the last day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins, before which any extra eggs, meat and dairy in the home would have to be consumed in a stomach-distending binge. Lent is the period of fasting that ends on Easter Sunday.

Despite its timing preceding a major Christian holiday, the significance of Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to pagan festivals like Saturnalia, which celebrated the god Saturn with a sacrifice and feast followed by partying and gambling. While Mardi Gras falls on a lone Tuesday, the celebrations can last weeks. In many cities, preparations and parades are already kicking off. New Orleans, renowned for a rich Mardi Gras tradition with origins dating back to 1699, celebrated the King Cake festival on Jan. 25, and parades began on Jan. 31. King Cake is a glazed, sugar-sprinkled braid of cinnamoned dough looped into a circle.

Venice, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro are known for their epic celebrations of Mardi Gras and Carnival, a related holiday. This year, Carnival festivities in Rio begin on Feb. 13, with a host of parades featuring colorful costumes, various themed balls and plenty of street parties. Venice, the canal-laced city in Italy, boasts the most elaborate Carnival events in Europe that draw tens of thousands of visitors for free street parades and extravagant masked balls.

So mark your calendar for Feb. 17 and plan appropriately for a historical day with roots in the best of causes: eating, drinking and making merry.