Lent begins this week, and we will be kicking it off with Ash Wednesday. However, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a day that is also steeped in tradition for us Catholics. Tuesday represents the last day of what is typically known as either Mardi Gras or Carnival. The specific day is known by several names including Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday. Today, we probably think of this as a day of indulgence and gluttony and as a way of treating ourselves before heading into 40 days of penance and self-denial, but historically, there is more meaning to the day and the development of traditions that have come from it.
Shrove Tuesday is the last day of what used to be a week-long celebration, called Shrovetide. “To shrive” means to hear confessions. Around the year 1000 AD, a bishop by the name of Theodulphus wrote, “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do in the way of penance.” Thus, Shrovetide was a way to prepare for the upcoming Lenten season by examining one’s conscience so as to know the best way to focus one’s Lent for the purpose of penance and bettering oneself. If during Shrovetide you find that you are struggling a lot with a particular sin through the confession process, you will have a better idea of what to give up for Lent or what sacrifices you will have to make to help nip that sin in the bud. Shrove Tuesday, then, marks the day of your last hoorah with those particular sins while you head forward into working on the opposite virtue.
The tradition of eating pancakes on Fat Tuesday also comes from the early Shrovetide traditions. At the time, meat was not the only thing given up during Lent. The early Church also required that people give up other luxuries such as eggs, milk, butter, and lard. St. Augustine of Canterbury wrote, “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” Essentially, in today’s terms, Lent was a time to be a vegan. Families used Shrovetide and particularly Shrove Tuesday to deplete their stores of these types of foods, so they would make decadent pancakes for dinner on the last night before Lent begins. This is also the very reason we celebrate Easter with Easter eggs. People were so happy to introduce eggs back into their diet, they celebrated with them and incorporated them into a catechesis on the Resurrection —as a chick pecks away at the shell to emerge into new life.
Mardi Gras (which means Fat Tuesday in French) and Carnival were later developments of Shrovetide that incorporated more local cultural traditions. Mardi Gras is founded on the ancient Roman pagan celebrations of Bacchanalia and Lupercalia, which were festivals that included celebrations of fertility, debauchery, sexual promiscuity, and often violence. As Christians started to view Shrovetide as a last chance to indulge themselves, they started to incorporate these types of celebrations into their own traditions leading up to Lent. Similarly, Carnival comes from the Latin word carnelevarium, which means, “the removal of meat.” These celebrations began in Italy in the 14th century and would include elaborate costumes and masks, along with musicians and entertainment. In the 17th century, these Carnival celebrations were adopted in Brazil, leading to the largest and most well-known Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, which is still celebrated today.
Of course, as we humans do, we got a little carried away with our sinful adaptations of what was intended to be an introspective period of time and so we needed help and course correction from our good and holy shepherds. In 1748, in an effort to offer the people correction, Pope Benedict XIV wrote a letter entitled, Super Bacchanalibus, where he instituted the “Forty Hours of Carnival.” In the three days prior to Ash Wednesday, churches would expose the Blessed Sacrament and offer prayers for the people. Anyone who used this time to adore the Blessed Sacrament, atone for their sins, and pray would be granted a plenary indulgence. At the time of writing this, I have not been able to find any information that this devotion has since been revoked or changed. It could thus be something we might want to consider adding to our Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday traditions ourselves.
While this article is particularly about our traditions leading up to Lent, let’s not forget Ash Wednesday. It may surprise some to learn that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation and is, therefore, optional. However, everyone is encouraged to participate in either a Mass or a Liturgy of the Word service to receive ashes on this very special day. Ashes remind us that our bodies are temporary (at least until their final resurrection!) and that we are meant for more than what the world has to offer us. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In addition to being a sign of repentance for our sins, the ashes are also a sign to the rest of the world of who we are (Christians) and who we serve (Jesus Christ). This is a very bold statement to make in today’s modern culture, and therefore, a great witness to the strength of our faith. If you can, receive your ashes this Wednesday and wear them bravely, yet humbly.
In these next few days leading up to Fat Tuesday, can you spend some time reflecting on its original intended purpose and meaning? Yes, you may certainly enjoy yourself with your usual family traditions, as there is nothing incorrect about doing so, within reason, of course. However, in addition, consider doing an examination of conscience, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and attending a holy hour in our adoration chapel. Instead of giving up your usual things, think about where you struggle in virtue and make real sacrifices that will help you in your goal of defeating sin and growing in holiness. How can you come out of the other side of Lent a better person?