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Catholic Activity: Pre-Lent and Carnival



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This excerpt from The Easter Book by Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J. explains the pre-Lent, or Septuagesima in the 1962 Calendar. He also describes many of the Carnival traditions from around the world.


The three Sundays preceding Lent are called Septuagesima (seventieth), Sexagesima (sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth). Actually they are not the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days before Easter as their names would indicate. These titles seem to have been arbitrarily chosen for the sake of round numbers, in keeping with the much older term of Quadragesima (fortieth) which denotes the first Sunday of Lent.

The preparatory time of pre-Lent was established by the practice of the Greek Church, which started its great fast earlier than the Roman Church did. We find the pre-Lenten Sundays mentioned as early as 541, in the fourth Council of Orleans. At the time of pope Saint Gregory I (604) they were already celebrated in Rome with the same liturgical Mass texts that are used today.

The spirit of pre-Lent is one of penance, devotion, and atonement, the Sunday Masses and the liturgical rules reflecting this character. The Gloria is omitted, purple vestments are worn, and the altars may no longer be decorated with flowers.

In ancient times, when the law of abstinence was much stricter and included many other foods besides meat, the clergy and a good number of the laity started abstaining progressively during the pre-Lenten season, until they entered the complete fast on Ash Wednesday. After Quinquagesima (i.e., the last Sunday before Lent) this voluntary fasting began with abstinence from meat; consequently, this Sunday was called Dominica carnevala (Farewell-to-meat Sunday), from which comes the word "carnival." Another, more scholarly, explanation of the derivation of carnival is that it comes from the Latin Carnem levare (carnelevarium) which means "withdrawal" or "removal" of meat.

The Oriental Church, too, abstained first from meat, but began on Sexagesima (the second Sunday before Lent), which is called "Meatless" (apokreo, in Greek; miasopust, in Slavic). With Quinquagesima the Eastern Church began (and still begins) the abstinence from butter, cheese, milk, and eggs. Thus in eastern Europe that day is called "Cheeseless Sunday" (syropust).

In preparation for Lent the faithful in medieval times used to go to confession on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. From this practice, that day became known as "Shrove Tuesday" (the day on which people are shriven from sins). An old English sermon of the eleventh century exhorts the faithful thus: "In the week immediately before Lent, everyone shall go to his confessor; and his confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do."16

A worldly aspect of pre-Lent is the familiar celebration known since medieval times by the term "carnival." Carnival celebrations are still held in central Europe and among the Latin nations of Europe and America. The German word for this time of celebration, Fassnacht, or Fasching, comes from the ancient vasen, which means "running around crazily," and was adopted by the Slavic nations (fasiangy) and by the Hungarians (farsang). Another German word of later origin is Fastnacht (Eve of the Fast). The Lithuanians call this season Uzgavenes (pre-Lent).

What is the origin of the modern carnival celebration? As the names indicate, there are various causes, but the primary reason for this sort of carnival is the feasting, rejoicing, and reveling preceding the imminent season of fast and abstinence. It is a trait of human nature to anticipate approaching privations by greater or lesser excesses. The intensity of this urge, however, should not be judged to stem from the mild Lenten laws of today but from the strict and harsh observance of ancient times, which makes modern man shiver at the mere knowledge of its details. No wonder the good people of past centuries felt entitled to "have a good time" before they started on their awesome fast.

Another reason for the feasting, and a very practical one, was the necessity for finishing those foods which could not be eaten during Lent, and which, in fact, could not even be kept in homes during the fast—meat, butter, cheese, milk, eggs, fats, and bacon. This meant an increased consumption of rich foods and pastries the week before Ash Wednesday. Hence have come the names "Fat Tuesday" (Fetter Dienstag, in German; Mardi gras in French); "Butter Week" (Sedmica syrnaja) in Russia and other Slavic countries; and "Fat Days" (Tluste Dni) in Poland.

In the northern counties of England, the Monday of carnival week is "Collop Monday" (from the Latin colpones, cut pieces). Collops are eaten in every house, and consist of sliced meat or bacon, mixed with eggs, and fried in butter. In Scotland people eat "Crowdie," a kind of porridge cooked with butter and milk. On Tuesday, England enjoys her famous Shrove Tuesday pancakes. The Germans have pastries called Fassnachtstollen, the Austrians Faschingskrapfen.

Fastelavnsboller are sold in Norway in great quantities during carnival time. Resembling our muffins, these "bollers" are sold throughout the whole year plain, but at carnival time they are filled with whipped cream and coated with sugar and frosting. Quinquagesima Sunday is there called Fastelavnssondag.

Of the northern countries, Russia, before the present regime, attached a national and strictly regulated importance to the several seasons of carnival, Lent, and Easter. Carnival or "Butter Week" was a general holiday. As in the western countries, there are pre-Christian relics in the Russian festival too, but these relics often present an extraordinary blending of Scandinavian and Asiatic myths. In the country districts a fantastic figure called Masslianitsa (Butter Goddess) is gaily decorated and driven about on a sledge while the peasants sing special songs and horovode (folk choruses). At the end of the week it is burned, and a formal farewell is bidden to pleasure until Easter. Rich but unsweetened pancakes (blinni) are served in every household at carnival time.

Since carnival was a time of feasting and reveling, it was only natural that many elements of the pre-Christian spring lore should have become part of the celebration. Lent excluded the boisterous practices of mumming and masquerading, so what better time could be found for it than the gay days of the carnival? All the familiar features of our modern carnival celebrations are firmly rooted in a tradition that actually dates from about the fourteenth century.

It has often been claimed that the pre-Christian element of the carnival frolics is a growth of the revels of the Roman "Saturnalia," a pagan feast in honor of the field god Saturnus held annually in December. It is true that the Saturnalia contained some features similar to our carnival. This similarity, however, is no proof of direct connection, since both festivals, independent of each other, could have adopted customs and rites from the much older Indo-European spring lore. In fact, modern research reveals that the pre-Christian parts of the carnival celebration have come down to us through the folklore of the Germanic and Slavic races rather than from Greece or Rome.

The popes, as temporal rulers of their state, acknowledged the carnival practice in Rome by regulating its observance, correcting its abuses, and providing entertainment for the masses. Paul II (1471) started the famous horse races which gave the name Corso to one of Rome''s ancient streets, the former Via Lata (broad street). He also introduced the carnival pageants for which the Holy City was famous. Within the past few centuries other cities, too, have developed their own special features of carnival celebration, like the famed carnival of Cologne, the parade of gondolas in Venice, the carnival balls of Vienna, the floats and parades in the cities of South America, and the mummers' parade in Philadelphia. The best-known celebration of carnival in America is the famous Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which takes its name from the day on which it is annually held. Similar celebrations are also held on that day in other cities and towns of Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama. In the last state, and in several cities of Florida and Louisiana, including New Orleans, the day is a legal holiday. It cannot be said, perhaps, that the participants in these revelries make up for their excesses by anything like the ancient or even modern fast and penance during the Lenten season, which begins on the next day, Ash Wednesday.

A detailed description of carnival, both ancient and modern, would fill a volume. What could easily be a time of good-natured and harmless enjoyment unfortunately has been turned by many into a wild orgy of eating, drinking, and other excesses. The carnival celebrations of modern big cities have not improved the standard of the "dark ages" very much. At a recent carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, seventeen people died in street fights and other accidents, and five thousand persons required medical treatment for injuries received.17

For years civic and religious authorities have fought this trend, generally with little effect. Pope Pius V (1590) imposed harsh punishments on offenders during the carnival seasons in Rome; he went so far as to erect whipping posts in conspicuous places as a caution and warning. In the city of Vienna it was found necessary, in 1654, to issue a municipal edict carrying threat of arrest and heavy fines for "lascivious behavior and the carrying of weapons" at carnival time. Such prohibitions had to be repeated almost every year during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until finally the carnival masquerades were completely suppressed in the streets of the Austrian capital, and only allowed as indoor amusements at the carnival balls, where people danced to the strains of Johann Strauss's waltzes.

In order to offset the many scandals committed at carnival time, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1748, instituted a special devotion for the three days preceding Lent, called "Forty Hours of Carnival," which is held in many churches of Europe and America, in places where carnival frolics are of general and long-standing tradition.


16. Quoted in Herbert Thurston, Lent and Holy Week, London, 1904, p. 62.

17. The New York Times, February 19, 1953.

Activity Source: Easter Book, The by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1954