These are the Most Interesting Mardi Gras Celebrations
The word "Lent" is from the Old English for spring, when the days lengthen and the sun shines longer (in the Northern hemisphere). In this sunny time, let us not think of Lent as some kind of shadow on our days, but rather a gestation or growing period for the blossoms of Easter: "Christians, bringing to fulfillment an instinct of most religions, have known that some period of mortification as a 'prayer of the senses' serves as a prelude to a spiritual rebirth."
Let us be reminded by our celebrations today that Lent is not eternal, because Christ conquered sin. The joy of Fat Tuesday will be once again part of our daily lives, with a renewed appreciation, only because Christ made this possible by His sacrifice! I saw a picture of people lying on the beach circulated over social media on D-Day one year, and it said "Your day at the beach brought to you by their day at the beach." The storming of the Normandy beaches was the bottom half of the picture. Lent is a reminder that the rest of the Liturgical year is a continual holiday away from Original Sin and eternal suffering, brought to us by Christ's agony and death, and it is simultaneously a reminder that we must share in His suffering. It is only the smallest taste of what Christ endured, but I know that that is plenty for myself to handle.
For many, the day before Ash Wednesday is a very special celebration, the last day of "Carnival/Carnaval" in several places around the world—a word that has been handed down from the Latin carnem levare, "to take away the flesh," in other words, to abstain from meat. We call this day "Mardi Gras" or, literally, "Fat Tuesday." In England it is known as "Shrove Tuesday," derived from the past tense of "shrive," which means "to confess." By extension this meaning also includes penance and absolution, two of the great themes of Lent. Shrovetide is the period from the last Sunday before Lent to Fat Tuesday. "While this was seen as the last chance for merriment, and, unfortunately in some places, has resulted in excessive pleasure, Shrovetide was the time to cast off things of the flesh and to prepare spiritually for Lent."
There are many commonalities between the Fat Tuesday traditions of different countries. One of these is the making of various pastries or sweets that will use up eggs and milk, as in the old days Lent was not only a period of abstinence from meat, but from all animal products. This is one of the reasons that eggs are a symbol of Easter; the other reason is that the life they hold inside their shells is a perfect allegory of the living Christ coming out of the tomb. The practice of using up dairy products is what gave rise to Shrove Tuesday's alternate title of "Pancake Day" in Britain. In Denmark, Sweden, and Norway it is referred to as Fastelavn and traditional pastries called "semla," a kind of bun filled with cream and almond paste, are baked and enjoyed. In Scandinavia, this holiday is in particular a time for children's and family games. So there we have it—what is universally required for this day is a lot of fun and, dare we say, food!
In Newfoundland they also have the tradition of baking pancakes, with a little twist. Among the "dry ingredients" are household objects such as rings, thimbles, thread, and coins! These are not meant to be choking hazards, rather they are supposed to be filled with meaning for family members (mainly for children). If you get a ring, then you are to be married first; coins presage riches, and sewing utensils a career as a tailor or seamstress, or perhaps the career of your spouse!
Not only did the UK coin the name "Pancake Day," they also coined the Pancake Race, a competition in which they certainly have the lead. Apparently this tradition comes from the story of a woman baking pancakes for Shrove Tuesday so furiously that she forgot about church until the bells were ringing. She ran, frying pan in hand, flipping a pancake lest it burn! And this is exactly what you do in a pancake race.
In celebration of the coming of spring, the Belgians added some target practice to their merrymaking—the tradition of throwing oranges at the crowd is essential to Fat Tuesday festivities! Supposedly, this dates back to the 14th century, when performers called "Gilles," wearing masks, bright-color costumes, and wooden clogs marched the streets with brooms (to chase evil spirits away) and an arsenal of oranges (to chase annoying neighbors). The Gilles themselves don't have it so bad with a traditional breakfast of oysters and champagne before their fruit-tossing ritual.
You have probably heard that the popular Mardi Gras masked ball has Italian roots. "Italy is considered the birthplace of Mardi Gras celebrations. It is called Martedi Grasso and Venice is known for its intricate mask designs." These masks were most likely another tradition of chasing evil spirits away the night before a Holy Day.
In Germany, Fat Tuesday is called Karneval or Fastnacht and it is celebrated by festivals called "the crazy days," also called "Fifth Season." Three characters are the stars of the show: the virgin, the prince, and the farmer. Elected prior to Fastnacht, these three hold a sort of mock rule during Karneval, with the prince representing authority and the farmer and virgin the people. Cologne hosts the largest parade of the country with over a million participants dressed in costumes. As you walk the streets, you can munch on German snacks of hot pretzels, Bratwurst sausages, Krapfen (German donuts), and mulled wine, or Gluhwein—but don't indulge too much in this one! You wouldn't want to miss the Cologne-brewed Kölsch beer.
As you read above, the Danish celebrate "Fastelavn" with semla, which are buns filled with whipped cream and jam, or other sweet pastes. They also dress up and go door to door collecting money.
Iceland is the place to go if you're wondering where all the savory dishes are on this menu. The day is called Sprengidagur, meaning "Bursting Day," and it is traditional to have salted meat such as lamb and split pea soup "saltkjöt og baunir."
Laskiainen is the name of this day in Finland, where they also eat a green pea soup and laskiaispulla (sweet bread filled with whipped cream and jam). One of the really fun parts of the traditional festivities is downhill sledding!
In Lithuania the pastry of the day is called Spurgos. Deep-fried and doughnut-like, they sometimes contain alcohol and raisins. Because you can't have too many sweets on Fat Tuesday, they also make little pancakes called blynai.
The Polish celebrate Fat Thursday, or Tłusty Czwartek, by eating jam doughnuts called pączki (pronounced "ponshki") as well as faworki, delicious deeep-fried pastries comparable to beignets. Fat Tuesday is called Sledziowka, which means ‘Herring Day’, and, yes, that's what you eat on that day. Here are a few Mardi gras recipes that include pączki and also some traditional Fat Tuesday tales.
They also eat a kind of doughnut to celebrate Terça-feira Gorda in Madeira, Portugal. Malasadas are fried dough balls rolled in sugar.
In Spain they celebrate Jueves Lardero or Jovelardero which means Fat Thursday, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, also known as Dia de la tortilla or "Day of the Omlette." This covers both dairy and meat, which is why the omlette became the traditional dish for using up all the leftovers of these products before Lent. Not a bad choice!
There are certainly many, too many, foods to choose from for Fat Tuesday. What are harder to find are recipes for Lent. Here are some meatless recipes to shake up your Lenten fare, as well as traditional recipes for particular days during Lent and Holy Week, along with some historical background.
Make sure that no matter what you do to celebrate today, you give thanks and glory to God, and have a lot of good fun with family and friends!
How do you celebrate Mardi Gras? Share in the comments!
Header Image: Venetian Carnival Masks/gnuckx