Shrovetide is upon us.
Lent is coming and the last days — even a week — before its arrival have been considered Shrovetide for centuries, dating back to times when most of Europe was solidly Christian.
For most of us, one vestige of this time is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), also known as Shrove Tuesday, which is part of the longer season of “Carnaval” or “Carnival” still celebrated in many parts of Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. Carnival was part of life in most of Europe during the Middle Ages, when it lasted anywhere from a few days to the entire time between Christmas and Lent. “Carnaval” is a word that comes from Latin (carne lavare). It basically means taking away meat, which is what happened during Lent.
Shrovetide was a type of “pre-Lent” and always ended on Ash Wednesday. During this pre-Lent, people began to put things in order for the penitential season leading to Easter. People didn’t exactly fast during pre-lent, but they did start thinking about it. So they made plans to use up the meat — and fat and butter and, yes, even chocolate. And this meant eating them all up before Lent.
Since meat was forbidden during Lent, what had been stored up for winter was eaten at this time, often in rich stews or special dishes. Since eggs and butter weren’t part of Lenten fare either, they were used up also — often made into the form of pancakes or various types of doughnuts. This explains why Mardi Gras is also known as “Pancake Day” in many countries, including Canada, Australia and England.
The word “shrove” comes to us from the English word “shrive,” which is in turn based on an early Germanic word, skriban, meaning “to absolve” or “to write,” often in the sense of writing out a sentence for a penalty. That’s what “shrive” means — to confess and be absolved, to clean up our lives and wipe the slate clean. Since people often avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation during Lent, the word “shrove” also fits the sense of the coming Lent season.
There are various customs — besides parades and celebrations in New Orleans — associated with the last days before Ash Wednesday. Most of these are associated with “cleaning out” foods that were forbidden during Lent. These customs include:
In Germany, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday is Donnerstag, Fat or Greasy Thursday. The following days, until Ash Wednesday, are named for flowers — including Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), which is the day for parades and merrymaking just like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (The next day is Violet Tuesday, a quieter celebration day.) In Poland, this Thursday is the day when paczki (pronounced “poonch-key;” the plural of paczek) are made and the day is called t?usty czwartek (Fat Thursday). Paczki often have fruit filling, such as prunes and apricots. (However, in the United States in areas with Polish background, paczki are traditionally eaten on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.)
Quinquagesima comes from the Latin word for “50”: quinquaginta. The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is 50 days before Easter, just as Pentecost is 50 days after Easter. (Quinquagesima Sunday is really 49 days before Easter, but Easter counts as the 50th day from Quinquagesima Sunday). In Russian Orthodox areas, this is the last day of “Cheesefare Week” or “Pancake Week,” known in Russian as Maslenitsa. During this week, all the fats, butter and cheese are eaten, usually in pancake form. The day is also known as “Forgiveness Sunday.” Friends and relatives asked each other for forgiveness, and visit their dead in cemeteries.
In England, this is also “Collop Monday,” from a word referring to leftover bits of bacon, but now also meaning any small bits of meat which are cooked in various dishes. In areas around Greece, this Monday is “Clean Monday.” Besides eating the foods that are not allowed during the season of fast — including shellfish and octopus among Greek Orthodox Christians — there is also a tradition of flying kites on this day, in honor of the coming of spring. In Iceland, this Monday is Bolludagur, or “Cream Puff Day.”
Not everything deals with food; so in Cornwall, this Monday was also known as “Nickanan Night,” similar in some ways to Halloween, when minor theft ensued (with things returned to homeowners the next day), as well as burning a straw figure known as a “Jack o’ Lent.”
In the same way, in parts of Spain, Tuesday is Powder Day, when people throw talcum powder on each other, in memory of a 16th century public uprising between Christians and Muslims. (Then they threw flour.) In Ivrea, Italy, people throw oranges at each other, remembering a public uprising in the 12th century and, more recently, as a way for young men and women to meet while exchanging oranges.
In Iceland, Tuesday is Sprengidagur (“Bursting Day”) when meat (usually salted meat) and bean/pea stew is eaten for the last time before Lent.
And in New Orleans, this is the final day for Mardi Gras parades. Worldwide, it is the end of Carnival. While people in northeast Wisconsin might eat paczki, people in Britain or countries with British ties know this as Pancake Day and pancake races are held in many English towns. At Westminster School in London, the “Pancake Grease” is held today. The headmaster tosses a huge pancake over a 15-foot-high bar. The children scramble to tear pieces off and the one with the largest piece wins.
These are just samples of the many ways people around the globe and over time have prepared for Lent. Cleaning out fatty foods reminds us that Lent is a time to “shrive” or “clear out” all sorts of things that might not be good for us as we settle into the 40 days of prayer, penances and waiting that draw us closer to the Lord. The food and fun, of course, are not gone forever; in 40 days we will celebrate Easter joy — also with lots of food to remind us of the heavenly, and unending, banquet.
Sources: “Catholic Encyclopedia”; cornishculture.co.uk; advantour.com; calendarcustoms.com; historic-uk.com; fisheaters.com; catholicism.about.com; german-way.com; sras.org; icelandreview.com; idealspain.com; and polamjounral.com.
Kasten is the author of several books, including “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press at osv.com.