Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic Activity: Pre-Lent: Man and Nature



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From Chapter 13: Pre-Lent of Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J. Father Weiser explores some of the seasonal customs of the transition between winter and spring that falls during the Carnival or pre-Lent time.


Just as many Christmas customs and similar observances had their origin in pre-Christian times, so, too, some of the popular traditions of Lent and Easter date back to ancient nature rites. The "spring lore" of the Indo-European races is their source in this case. From Yule to the summer solstice (which was celebrated on June 24), a continuous tradition of spring rites and symbolic fertility cults was practiced among our forefathers.27

THE FIGHT AGAINST WINTER — These activities began at the winter solstice, when the day was shortest in the year, and lasted until April or May. In order to frighten the demons of winter away, and at the same time to hide their own identity, the participants in this "fight" were disguised in wild and strange costumes. Wearing masks of horrible size and shape, they ran shouting and screaming through the open spaces around their homes.28

Mummers' and carnival masquerades of later times and the uproarious celebrations on various days between Christmas and Easter have their origin in this "fight." In southern Germany, in Austria, and among the Slavic nations such mummers' (Perchten) parades are still held every year. Dressed in ancient costumes and masks, the paraders follow traditional routes, accompanied by the loud and discordant noise of drums, cowbells, crude trumpets, and the cracking of whips or the shooting of mortars (Böller).29

Another rite of "frightening the winter away" was the setting of fires between Yule and May. Attached to wooden rings or wheels, brands were sent rolling down the meadows from the hilltops. In southern Germany the first Sunday of Lent is still called Brandsonntag (Fire Sunday), when many such burning wheels move, sparkling in the dark night, on the hillsides and from the mountain peaks. In France the same Sunday was called Fête des brandons (Feast of Torches) because on that day young people ran through the streets with firebrands to chase the winter away.30

As the spring advanced and days grew warmer, the people celebrated "winter's burial." Sometimes with mock sadness, more often, however, with wild and joyous abandon, they dragged a ragged straw figure, often of giant size, through the village, accompanied by a large crowd of "mourners" in masquerade. Popular funeral rites were held, and the huge figure, dressed in white to symbolize the snow, was either buried or "executed" by quartering, drowning, burning, or hanging, with the lusty approval and acclaim of the onlookers. In the sixteenth century they started in many places to stuff the figure with powder and fireworks, so that the heat of the games would make it explode with a thunderous crash.31

Such burials of winter are still held in many countries. Very often, however, the ceremony has come to be interpreted as the "burial of carnival," or the "burning of Judas" on Holy Saturday.32

The climax of these rites was the play depicting "winter's defeat." The actors, impersonating with appropriate dress the figures of summer and winter, would carry on a verbal battle in which winter, defeated, conceded the victory to summer.33

FERTILITY RITES — While the struggle between summer and winter went on (December to April), many symbolic celebrations were held to demonstrate how anxious people were for the coming warm season and to insure as well the blessings of fertility (the important second part of these ancient rites).

The joy over the appearance of new plants and flowers in spring prompted man to attribute to them a special power of protection and healing. People planted special spring flower gardens; they brought branches of early-blossoming plants, like pussy willows, into their homes; they decorated themselves and their living rooms with wreaths of flowers and clusters of blossoms. A striking Christian variation of these nature rites was the medieval custom of planting "Mary gardens," which were made up of all the flowers and herbs that are ascribed by love and legend as a special tribute to the Blessed Virgin. This charming tradition has recently been revived in many places.34

Another fertility rite was the symbolic "plowing" of the earth in early spring, with a real plow or a wooden log, to make the soil fertile. It was done with elaborate ceremonies, often connected with a mummers' parade. In Germany and eastern Europe it became a part of the carnival celebration (Blochziehen). In England it was held in January, and the Monday after Epiphany (January 6) acquired from this ancient custom the name "Ploughmonday." The original fertility cult is still preserved in the superstition that maidens who draw the plow or sit on it or touch it will soon be married and will be blessed with healthy offspring.35

Chemistry and physics as we know them, of course, were a mystery to our pre-Christian forefathers. From constant observation, however, they knew only too well the effects of rain, or lack of rain, on vegetation and life. Water, therefore, assumed in their minds a magic role of producing fertility, health, and new life. This is the basis of the many ancient "water rites."36 It was the fashion among all nations of Europe to sprinkle women and girls with water, thus to insure them the blessings of fertility and good health. This custom is still preserved in European countries, where during carnival time or at Easter the boys sprinkle or splash water on the girls, and the girls retaliate on the following day. In cities perfume is often used instead of water.

In the Middle Ages the Feast of Christ's Resurrection became the favorite time for such ancient water rites. In many parts of central and eastern Europe, and also in France, girls and women wash their faces in brooks and rivers on Easter Sunday morning (Osterwaschen). It is a widespread legend that on Easter Day all running water is especially blessed because the Risen Lord sanctified all life-giving elements and bestowed upon them special powers for the one great day of His resurrection.

Similar customs prevail in French Canada, where people wash themselves with water taken from rivers or fountains on Easter Sunday. They also preserve it in bottles, and it is said to remain fresh until the following Easter, being credited with great healing powers. In Germany and Austria bridegroom and bride sprinkle each other with such water before going to church on their wedding day. Domestic animals, too, are believed to benefit from the power of Easter water. In many parts of Europe farmers sprinkle them with water drawn from brooks or springs during Easter night. In some sections of Germany horses are ridden into a river on Easter Sunday to obtain for them protection and good health.37 Irish legends attribute to water fetched on Easter Day magic powers against witches and evil spirits.

Among the Slavic nations the men in rural districts will rise at midnight on Holy Thursday and walk to the nearest brook to wash themselves. They do this in honor and imitation of Christ who, according to an old Oriental legend, fell into the river Cedron on His way to the Passion.

The Church has provided a Christian version of the ancient water rite by blessing and distributing Easter water on Holy Saturday, thus elevating the pre-Christian symbolism of nature into a Christian sacramental. It is customary for millions the world over to obtain for their households the Easter water blessed on Holy Saturday.

Another rite of fertility was the touch with the "rod of life" (Lebensrute).38 A few branches were broken from a young bush, and any maiden touched or hit by this rod was believed to obtain the blessings of health and fertility. This symbolism was incorporated in the mysteries of the Roman goddess Libera, in which young matrons were initiated into childbearing and motherhood by a ritual of flagellation to insure fertility.

All through Europe this custom is found at carnival time or Eastertide. Girls and women are tapped with leaved rods or pussy willow branches, which are often decorated with flowers and ribbons. A familiar relic of this tradition seems to be the modern practice of throwing the bridal bouquet at weddings. It reveals its ancient symbolism by the claim that the girl who catches the bouquet (thus being touched by the rod of life) will be the next one to marry.

The greater part of the pre-Christian usage and meaning of the rod of life was transferred in medieval times to the Christian symbolism of the "palms" which the Church blesses on Palm Sunday.

SPRING FESTIVAL — When the victory of spring was fully won and winter had disappeared, our forefathers used to celebrate by dancing around a gaily decorated tree (maypole), cleared of branches except on its top. The tree itself was a symbol of nature's triumph, a tribute to the power of new life.39 In medieval times maypoles were erected in every community. In rural towns of the Austrian Tyrol the inhabitants still observe the appealing custom of planting a maypole, at any time of the year, in front of houses where newly wed couples live; there the gay symbol remains until the night after the birth of the first child, when the young men of the village silently take it down.40

The crowning of the "May Queen" is another ancient rite which has been practiced by Indo-European peoples for thousands of years. One of the girls, chosen by a vote of young men, was led in procession to the place of the spring festival, where she presided over the celebration. She was often accompanied by a young man who was called the "May King." Both were dressed in festive robes, wore wreaths of flowers on their heads, and held in their hands a wooden scepter (the rod of life) adorned with flowers and ribbons.41

The final victory over winter was also celebrated with the setting of "bonfires" on hills and mountain peaks in all countries of northern Europe during pre-Christian times. The Easter fires and Saint John's fires are still a cherished part of the annual folklore in many sections, especially the Alpine provinces.42

Thus the religious celebration of the sacred seasons of Lent and Easter is accompanied by many popular traditions of ancient origin which have added a charming touch to the supernatural meanings of the season. Under the guiding inspiration of the Church a popular observance was molded, in which most of the natural customs were ennobled through the spiritual power of Christianity.


27 These "fertility cults" are not the Greek cults of the same name, but a part of the general practice of nature lore among the Indo-Europeans. On the background of ancient spring lore, see Frazer, passim, and E. Dietrich and E. Fehrle, Mutter Erde, Berlin, 1925, 92-115. 

28 A. Spamer, Deutsche Fastrachtsgebräuche, Jena, 1936. 

29 Koren, 97.

30 Nilles, II, 118 ff.; Frazer, 609 ("Lenten Fires").

31 Frazer, 301 ff. Geramb, 45 ff.

32 Gugitz, I, 86 ff. (Faschingsbegraben).

33 See text of such a dialogue in WE, 18. 

34 D. J. Foley, "Mary Gardens," in The Herbarist, Boston, 1953, No. 9. 

35 Geramb, 38 ff. (Blochziehen und Pflugziehen).

36 Frazer, 341 f. 

37 Benet, 57; E. Fehrle, Deutsche Feste und Volksgebräuche," Leipzig, 1927, passim. 

38 Nilles, II, 333; G. Graber, Der Schlag mit der Lebensrute, Klagenfurt, 1910.

39 Frazer, 120 ff., 314 ff.

40 Geramb, 84.

41 Frazer, 131.

42 Frazer, 614 ff. ("The Easter Fires"); Geramb, 69 (Die Osterfeuer).

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958