Carnival: Part Two, the Final Countdown

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Feb 17, 2015

See Carnival Part One: A Season of Contrasts which illustrated how the Carnival season provided a spiritual focus but incorporated both physical and spiritual aspects.  

Last year my husband's co-workers planned a Mardi Gras party at the office, but a snowstorm closed down work for a few days. The woman organizer announced that this party was still going to happen and postponed it for Wednesday of that week. 

There was a problem with this rescheduling, because the rescheduled date was actually Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence. My husband and I got a chuckle out of the faux pas of having a Mardi Gras party on Ash Wednesday, but also observed it as a sad reflection of the changing of our Christian culture.

Carnival time has less of an impact on today's world because there is a less prevalent Christian influence. The religious reasons for celebrating and preparation for Lent have been lost and forgotten by most. The various traditions around the world, such as Mardi Gras, have just become an opportunity for secular celebration, removed from any spiritual connection.

But it must be remembered that Fat Tuesday cannot exist without Ash Wednesday! In the final days before Ash Wednesday many Carnival traditions and foods arose from the practical human nature, all with the focus on the upcoming fasting and penances of Lent.

Intentional Traditions

There is such a rich variety of traditions and foods attached to the final days before Ash Wednesday. Until this past century, Lent had strict restrictions in regards to fasting and abstaining which brought rise to varied ways of counting down the days. A few highlights:

  • Collop Monday: Monday before Ash Wednesday in some parts of England is called "Collop Monday," named after the "collops" or slice of meat with eggs eaten on this day. 
  • Mardi Gras: This is the general French word meaning "Fat Tuesday" but the term is now brings to mind the Mardi Gras celebrations in south Louisiana, which include balls, parades, parties and the delicious King Cakes
  • Fasching: This is term for Carnival celebrations in German-speaking countries and fastnachtskuchen or fastnachts are doughnuts served for fetter Dienstag (Fat Tuesday).
  • Pancake Day: Another name for Fat Tuesday. To use up the extra eggs and milk and butter that were not going to be consumed during Lent, pancakes were a simple and delicious treat served in a variety of ways, such as traditional Buttermilk Pancakes, Polish Baked Apple Pancakes, German Apple Pancakes, Hungarian Pancakes, Irish Boxty Pancakes, Cheese Blintzes or French crepes. Some regions also had pancake races.
  • Pancake Bell: By the 17th century in England, Pancake Day was a firmly established tradition. The Pancake Bell would ring near lunchtime, as a signal to quit working and start flipping flapjacks and celebrate before the beginning of the fast at midnight.
  • Lent Crocking, also known as Shroving or Tiptoeing: This tradition is very similar to the original Trick-or-Treating of a Soul Cake on All Hallows' Eve. Children and/or poor villagers would beg (singing chants) from door-to-door for pancakes or the ingredients to make them (flour, eggs, milk). Threats were issued for those homes that didn't provide the pancakes:
    • Here I come, I never came before,
      If you don't give me a pancake
      I'll break down the door!
    Other forms of mischief would be throwing broken crockery and leaving it on the doorsteps, hence the name "Crocking." (Smithsonian Folkways shared a Lent Crocking Folk song.)
  • Shrovetide: The whole period of Carnival is often referred to as Shrovetide (or Mardi Gras). Shrove Tuesday is the last day of the celebration. "To shrive" was to go to confession. There was a reminder that while Carnival was a time for the last hurrah before Lent, is also was a time to prepare spiritually. One couldn't repent and receive the graces during Lent if one didn't start with confession.

A Practical Spirit

With all these various traditions, there is a common thread of practicality through them all. Yes, over the years some of the frivolity has gone overboard with abuses, but all the practices began with a common sense approach.

First of all, this was preparation time, both spiritually and physically. Spiritually this was a time for "shriving." Carnival, especially the last days were a call to go to confession before Lent. Also inferred through all the traditions is mentally getting set for Lenten penances. If people weren't changing eating habits, than why would there be an excess of rich foods before Lent? In a spiritual sense Carnival is preparing one's personal Lenten resolutions.

The former Lenten restrictions of fasting from meat, eggs, dairy and fats during Lent were difficult. Carnival time gave a sense of preparing for the Forty Days' Fast, almost like a mammal fattening up before hibernation. No prudent homemaker would allow these forbidden foods to go to waste. That thinking brought so many wonderful recipes utilizing these ingredients. Every region seemed to have a different version of a recipe that incorporated fat, flour, eggs, milk and sugar. Some form of pancakes and/or doughnuts are the most popular recipes (as seen by list of recipes for Fat Tuesday), but there are variations depending on personal and regional tastebuds.

A Continuation

While I love having special treats for the final days before Lent, I also have a practical attitude. Fat Tuesday can't exist without Ash Wednesday. The celebration comes to a shrieking halt at midnight. It's not a weight hanging over our heads, but there is a constant reminder that tomorrow we strive to become new men, with new resolutions.

I don't want to have any leftovers to tempt me on Ash Wednesday. I also don't want to do too much celebration that will make it even harder to get through Ash Wednesday. A hangover or a caffeine withdrawal headache on a fasting day is penance for everyone else around me.

Our family will spend the final hours celebrating but also preparing for tomorrow. We had some Paczki and some favorite desserts for our final countdown. Today is a long-awaited snow day in Virginia, so we have sledding, hot chocolate, a warm fire and movies. We are purging the cupboard of tempting sweets, especially those Saturday's Valentine's treats. We aren't dieting in the secular sense, but we begin tomorrow dying to ourselves.

And then there are the preparations of the house that provide visual reminders of the penitential season. I shared last year in Lenten Mnemonics a few of the ways we focus on the Lenten season at home. There is also the preparation of ourselves. We want to aim for self-discipline, even if it's small ways like an extra daily Mass, or having a better routines through the day because we took little steps to prepare our clothes and books and meals. All this needs to be laid out so we can start Ash Wednesday on the right note. So while Fat Tuesday is a fun day, it also has a practical nature to it.

That cross of ashes on our foreheads tomorrow will bring the close of Carnival celebrations: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." We are detaching our hearts from those worldly attractions and turning our hearts toward God. Carnival has been a fun time, but now we need to turn our hearts to God.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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