What I remember about Lent when I was a kid was the Catholic kids spilling out of church on Ash Wednesday with black crosses on their foreheads. And their moaning and groaning about what they had to give up for Lent.
“Mom says it has to be chocolate. Why can’t I just give up broccoli?”
“Yeah? Well, I have to give up all desserts – and candy.”
“Man, I can’t wait til Easter.”
Of course, when I became Catholic myself I learned all about Lent, the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before his crucifixion. I also discovered the significance of the number 40.
In Noah’s day it rained for 40 days and nights. The Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in the Wilderness before entering the Promised Land. Some biblical scholars contend they would have made the trek in 40 days had it not been for their obstinacy. To make up for this, Moses prayed on the mountain for 40 days before receiving the 10 Commandments.
Lent itself is an old English word meaning “lengthening,” as in, it’s spring and the days are getting longer. Lent even has its own special color: purple, a color that signifies mourning (for our sinful nature) and royalty denoting Christ’s kingship.
While Lent itself may be tedious and same-ol’, same-ol’, what with giving up chocolate and all, what happens just before Lent is anything but. Shrove Tuesday, aka Fat Tuesday, is virtually sprinkled with tradition.
Shrove comes from the term “shriving,” which is an early Christian tradition of confessing sins and receiving absolution on the last day before Lent. And, of course, there was the giving up of stuff for the 40 days before Easter.
What the early Christians gave up included meats, fats, eggs and milk. Since these were things that would not keep without spoiling for 40 days, every household had to get rid of them on Fat Tuesday.
Interestingly, this is where pancakes began. Add flour to fat, eggs and milk and you have (voila!) pancake batter. Add the cooked meat, and you’ve got a feast. Legend has it that somewhere during the 1400s, a housewife was busy cooking pancakes and lost track of time. While still cooking, she heard the church bells summoning the faithful to Lenten services. The story insists she raced to church still carrying the frying pan filled with pancakes. And this was the day the national pancake race was launched.
Fat Tuesday is an even bigger deal in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and in Rio de Janeirofor Carnival. Mardi Gras, by the way, is French for Fat Tuesday.
And me, I’m just going to give up broccoli.