Most of the Christian community celebrated Ash Wednesday last week. In the modern church, it is a day whose significance is the beginning of Lent, the period of six weeks leading up to Easter, the day after the end of Mardi Gras. As with many, if not most, church dates, its history can give a glimpse into the history of our civilization.
For all of its importance to the survival of humanity, food has rarely been a sure thing in our history. Rather, with the exception of those fortunate enough to be in the upper class, it has been a variable, especially in the late winter months. Many authorities believe that the use of fasts in the early traditions of the Church have has as much to do with a predictable scarcity of food as with piety. The prevalence of fasts from All Saints in late October to Pentecost in the spring seems to bear this out. Fasts were traditionally a time to concentrate on piety and penance, not popular themes at any time through history. They were normally followed by a major feast, such as Easter.
From medieval times, western peoples practiced a tradition known as “Twelfth Night”. This kept the celebration of Christmas going through Epiphany. Predictably, people were loath to end the holiday in the dead of winter and return to the bleak business of survival. This probably helped lead to the practices which became known as Mardi Gras. In some countries, the Carnival Season begins the night of Epiphany, with parades and parties running until Shrove Tuesday.
Traditional religious fasts were quite strict. For various symbolic reasons, the Lenten fast runs for forty days. The time of eating, type of foods allowed, and quantity were regulated, not only by the Church and custom but by the fact that this fast takes place at the end of winter when stored foods are running low. Obviously, fats and eggs would not be plentiful in this time – and the eating of them was forbidden during the fast. Without a means to keep them, and not wanting to waste the food, those who had such luxuries needed to get rid of them before the start of the fast. Throwing parties seems to have been the solution; “shrove pancakes”, traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday (also known as “fat” Tuesday because of the amount of food consumed) are high in eggs and fats – an attempt to use those substances before they went bad.
The idea of such excessive consumption grew into a week long celebration with parades, parties and dances. It became a traditional time to appoint new knights, hold tournaments, weddings, and other celebrations; gatherings which, by definition, could not take place in the upcoming forty days of fasting. The term Mardi Gras, which strictly translates as “Fat Tuesday” became the term for the week preceding Ash Wednesday. The party comes to an abrupt end at midnight on Tuesday. In many communities, the revelers proceed directly to the Church for a service which signals the start of Lent.
In years past, it became fashionable to deny oneself something through the period of Lent; normally something which should be avoided anyway, such as tobacco, alcohol, or excessive sweets. This begs the idea of the fast, which is to deny oneself something which will be restored on the day of the feast.
We rarely deny ourselves – voluntarily, at least – much of anything. We have become copious consumers of food, energy, oil, and the resources of our world. The slab of meat we normally place on a plate as a serving for one meal is more than is consumed for a day in most middle class households in Europe. We turn on the tap for hot water, expecting it to be there without any more serious consequence to the budget than the cold -rarely recalling that it is actually considerably more expensive. In many parts of the world, tenants of apartments are charged an additional fee based on the quantity of hot water they use. We believe in the dream of our own residence, with a yard and space between us and the neighbors – a luxury reserved for the upper class in most parts of the world.
There is an appreciation for amenities that seems to require an absence of them to flourish. A week without coffee or soft drinks makes the first drink after the abstinence seem more flavorful. A month without a favored food makes the taste even better when next consumed. Perhaps we have done ourselves a disservice by doing away with the idea of fasting. Even without the religious connotation, a heightened appreciation of the resources we so blithely use would not be amiss.
New Orleans prides itself on a Mardi Gras celebration unsurpassed anywhere in the world, including in the countries which created the event. The party will be covered by the media, in all its glory. Perhaps we should take a little time to remember that here is a reason for the party, a fast to follow the fun. Perhaps it would do no harm to remember that a little self denial can lead to a greater appreciation.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to email@example.com