Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras

Today is the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins. The holidays of Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras have their roots in the self-denial of the Lenten season. My students are always amazed when I tell them about the fasting traditions of Lent and the need to get rid of all the ingredients that you'd be giving up during Lent: alcohol, sugar, eggs, and in some traditions, even dairy foods. They see Mardi Gras and Carnival as convenient reasons to drink and have ill-considered sex. They've never made the connections between these holidays and Lent--and frankly, most of them don't even know what Lent is.

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

So, will your church have a pancake supper today? I suspect your church is like mine, and if you have pancakes at all, you'll have them tomorrow, before your Ash Wednesday service. I'm one of the ones who will decry how hard it is to get people to come to church on weeknights, but I also feel the weariness of work, the powerful appeal of my pillow (yes, I often do go to bed that early).

I have friends who grew up in Europe, or who grew up in big American cities, who cannot dream of what a social center the church used to be in smaller towns, and what a gift that might have been. I went to college in a small Southern town (Newberry, South Carolina) so I have a sense of that deprivation. When I was in school there in the mid-80's, the stores still closed at 1:00 on Wednesdays and all day on Sundays. There was one movie theatre, with one screen, in town. The churches that had active fellowship ministries filled an important niche.

In past years, I've made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and eaten them alone, at my kitchen table. It just isn't the same. And it's sort of a pointless exercise. As I've pointed out here, I won't be doing the traditional giving up for Lent. I'll be working my way through 40-Day Journey with Madeleine L'Engle--my mom and dad's church is experimenting with a Facebook group, and I'm looking forward not only to working my way through the book, but also to seeing an online experiment in action (and not being the one in charge). I'll also be doing one non-writing art project a week that ties in to the season--look for my first post on Thursday.

In this season of impending ash and penitence, I wish us all well as we prepare for Lent, in whatever way makes sense to us.

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