Did you know that’s what “Mardi Gras” meant? Yup, the name was pretty straight-forward; the day before Ash Wednesday is traditionally the last day to binge on all the rich foods and other excesses you would be giving up for Lent. It is a day to consider in what areas of our life we might need to improve, and how better to do that than over a great meal? While I am not a member of a congregation that takes on this traditional belief, I don’t mind the opportunity to enjoy the fun of it.
I’m going out for pancakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday. This is such a traditional food for the day that some call it Pancake Tuesday. In England, there is a town that has even held a pancake race since 1445! It’s in honour of a parishioner who apparently lost track of time and ran out her door with her pan of pancakes in her hand when the church bell rang to signal the service starting. Today contestants dress up like housewives in aprons and kerchiefs, and must carry their pan (complete with pancake) over a 415 yard course through town. They even have to flip their pancake at the start and finish of the race!
In Iceland, my heritage on my father’s side of the family, the day is called “Sprengidagur”, which translates as Bursting Day (don’t you love the sense of humour?) Salted meat and peas were the traditional fare, but I think I would have preferred Icelandic pancakes, Ponnokukur.
Despite my lightheartedness at describing these activities, my aim is not to belittle the serious religious custom that is at the core of Shrove Tuesday. “Shrove” is the past tense of the English verb shrive which was to obtain absolution for one’s sins through confession. Your last chance to be shriven was on Shrove Tuesday, as Lent begins the next day and penance would start.
Similarly, Carnival (spelled in various ways in different languages) comes from the Latin carne levare, meaning to take away meat, a common practice during Lent. The festivities of Carnival – dressing up, dancing, indulging in rich foods and other decadent pastimes – were other ways of celebrating the excess before Lent. The masquerade, where people covered their identities with a mask, was said to sometimes offer a chance for lovers to be together in public. This is perhaps the culmination of all things excessive, and is a famous part of the Carnevale in Venice, Italy.
Rich foods like donuts and pancakes have been customary on this day as they were a good way to use many of the rich foods in the pantry before Lent began, like eggs and milk and sugar.
It strikes me that the rich foods of winter start to become less popular about this time of year even in secular circles, so even those without religious background can look upon this day as an opportunity to reflect on the coming of the lighter and often healthier fare of spring and summer.
Whatever you do in the coming weeks, as the year edges on and spring comes ever closer, I hope you will have a chance to reflect on how you can make the most of it and how you can enjoy your blessings. I think that might be the simple truth of this ancient holiday.
Isn’t it interesting that the day proceeding the start of Lent is seen in some places as an all-out binge, as if to signify that one should load up to make sure that there are minimal regrets whilst one is supposed to abstain from those excesses in life? Or perhaps the idea was to give you something to think about on those long pre-spring nights, knowing how good life can be and pondering the value of what is missing and how those blessings enrich our lives?? Well, without sounding too crass I hope, I would like to suggest that whichever way you take Mardi Gras, (or Fat Tuesday as it translates to English) you should take advantage of a day that encourages you to enjoy life and share that joy.
Wouldn’t it brighten a mid-February evening to have the family dress up for dinner and show off their outfits the way the bourgeois used to strut their stuff inVenice cafes? Or perhaps you would prefer to turn up the music (and maybe the heat) and adorn everyone with beaded necklaces? You could play New Orleans jazz and march around the living room, or go more exotic and add feathers – it’s like Rio! Trust me, it won’t take long before everyone is in the spirit of things… and then there is the food and drink, of course.
It’s okay – you have spent the last six weeks trying to live up to your new resolutions and improve your routine, so don’t you deserve to cut yourself a little slack? Skip the gym for a day or two and burn off that energy by dancing! Cook up your favourite specialties, or look to the traditional items for Mardi Gras – various kinds of donuts and fritters, crepes or pancakes; the King cake with a hidden figurine (whoever gets it in their piece has to host the next party!); sparkling wines are good, cognac works too, or even fun cocktails will work! After all, this is one of those times when the philosophy of “carpe diem” applies to the fullest extent. If your life was over the next day, what would you most want to do?
It seems to be a reminder we need often but heed rarely – to live life to its fullest, and enjoy each moment for what it brings.
Even if you can’t take much time to live on the edge and get into the spirit of Mardi Gras, think about splurging a little bit on something and do it without guilt but just for the sheer enjoyment. (You can always feel guilty tomorrow!)