Lent, as we know it, took some time to develop. Certainly, by the 5th century there was already established in the Church a time of penance which was about 40 days long, not including Sundays, in preparation for Easter . The point of having this period was the penance, and while the fasting associated with Lent fluctuated, Catholics of the past were always much more stringent than we are today.
It was not just that one had to abstain from meals on a day here or there. On days of fasts only one meal could be had, it had to be in the evening, and you were fasting either every day for three of the six weeks or three days a week during the entire season. Not only was meat not allowed for the entirety of Lent, but eventually butter and eggs couldn’t be consumed. Mind you, none of this was absolutely required by the Church. There were no edicts or laws passed for many centuries. The people simply recognized the importance of fasting and solidarity with each other in the fasting, and they did it. Our forebears were definitely made of tough stuff.
But in preparation for all of that fasting and penance, it only made sense that the day or two before Lent started someone needed to consume all that sugar and butter and milk and bacon in the house. Thus, Mardi Gras.
The words from the French mean “Fat Tuesday,” the Tuesday before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We call it this in English oftentimes. The more traditional English term is Shrove Tuesday. To “shrive” is to seek forgiveness through penance or to be forgiven of one’s sins. One way to use on all that butter and eggs and milk was to make pancakes. So it is traditional for many to have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The Germanic speaking peoples have Faschingsdienstag which means “carnival Tuesday.” But not to be outdone by the French, they have a whole week of festivities with Weiberfastcnacht (literally “fat fast night”) on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday with parades and such over the weekend. The French, Italians, and Spanish have been calling it “carnival” since at least the 16th century. The word is rooted in the Latin which basically means “meat, farewell”!
In the United States, we tend to associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, but the practice of celebrating carnival during this period of time, not just on Tuesday, is common in Europe and Latin America. People dress up in colorful costumes, which can get quite intricate, and parade about the streets to music and laughter while they toss sweets to the observing crowd.
How can we celebrate it today? Two things ought to be said:
First, temperance is still a virtue… especially during Shrovetide, or Mardi Gras, or Carnival, or whatever you want to call it. So, no one should be “overdoing it" in their attempt to consume some good things before they give it all up.
Second, while it is important for us to fast with the Church, it is also important for us to feast with the Church. So, enjoy good food and good drink tonight. Have a good laugh with the family. Lent is long. No need to pretend it’s not. Take some time on a busy Tuesday school night to celebrate. On the way home from school or work, pick up a treat for the family. Or have breakfast for dinner by making a mound of pancakes and drench them in syrup with a side of bacon.
Then, tomorrow, enter into Lent with vigor.