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.