Category Archives: Ash Wednesday

Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday

Shrovetide is the time we’ve been in in recent weeks: the time of merry making before Lent begins. And Shrove Tuesday is today: the very last of it. Tomorrow will bring Ash Wednesday and a decidedly not merry time: Lent, forty days of fasting and penance and reflection. Which is perhaps something we need every now and then. Well certainly once a year, it was thought, and why not now, when the larders were getting empty. Back in the days when food was not as plentiful and easily procured as it is now, Lent was crucial to help get everyone through to spring and renewal.

There are many traditions in foodways for Shrove Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras. I’m not so crazy about the King Cakes that are in grocery stores this time of year––they’re a bit too sweet and insipid for my tastes, with all that purple and green and yellow sugar. But the Polish bakeries will have pączki today, a rich filled doughnut, and the Swedish bakeries will have cream filled buns called semla. If they’re doing things right they’ll be selling them today but definitely not tomorrow and not again until next Shrovetide. In Germany, it is Fasnacht, and folks will be making doughnuts for the occasion this night (nacht) before the fast.

Seth and I, we’ll be making pancakes for our supper, and that is an old delicious tradition, one designed for times when Lent was much more restrictive than it is now. Nowadays you’re golden if you pass up on meat on Fridays, but in ages past, folks had to give up meat for all forty days, and also eggs and all kinds of things we take for granted now. Making pancakes for supper on Shrove Tuesday was a way to use up all the eggs, all the milk, and all the sugar before the next day’s dawning brought Lent. We eat our pancakes with festivity and in good spirit, and in the morning, if we have it in us, we will approach that altar to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the spoken reminder: Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return. We are made of the stuff of this earth and we shall return to it. But the stuff of this earth is made of the stuff of the stars, too, and that is something to ponder. If nothing else, these forty days that follow tonight’s pancake supper will hopefully remind us that life is short, and we would do well to live the time we have with compassion and kindness for our fellow human beings, and to love each day, and, as we like to say here, to live the ceremony of each day, too.

Image: “Shrovetide,” a painting by Igor Novikov, 2013. No pancakes or semla or pączki to be found in the picture, but it’s ok; I do love the painting. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Love & Lent

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s also the first day of Lent. That’s one of the dangers of a February holiday like Valentine’s Day: sometimes it falls on a fasting day. A really nice dinner is a traditional part of many Valentine’s Day celebrations; sometimes, like this year, Lent shows up as an unwelcome guest at the table. Whether you fast or not is up to you. I certainly won’t say anything.

Nonetheless, with the passing of Fat Tuesday, the excess of Carnival is done. It’s now Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a forty day journey of penitence, fasting, and almsgiving. The idea of abstaining from meat and things of the flesh (milk, cheese, eggs) during Lent was instituted by Pope Gregory in the late 6th century as a way of helping his flock prepare for Easter and the miracle of spring by mirroring Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the desert. But although it is a season of denial imposed by religious belief, the fact is that in earlier times this was a season of scarcity in general. Folks did their best each fall during harvest time to store away food and provisions to last through the winter, but by this time of year, these things were beginning to get scarce. The salted meat would be running low, the eggs running out. There’s not much to gather in the wild and not much is growing yet in the fields. In the Northern Hemisphere, we are just beginning at this point to spring out of winter. In times past, if you were lucky, you’d still have a decent quantity of flour in the barrel and a good store of dried beans, root vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts and hopefully some salted fish. Even without a decree from the Pope, some fasting would almost always be necessary to get your family through the remaining weeks of winter.

As I mentioned in the Book of Days chapter two days ago, titled “Fat Tuesday,” the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. He is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She is known as La Vecchia. Her time gets the name Quaresima, which sounds so much more lovely than our stark English word Lent. Sometimes La Vecchia takes the form of a baked loaf of bread in the shape of a skinny old woman with seven legs. One leg is broken off with each passing Sunday of Lent, a calendar of sorts, marking the passage of this spare season.

Nowadays, most Catholics simply abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Restrictions have loosened a lot over the years, perhaps in direct proportion with our abilities to keep food on the table at all times of the year. The restrictions are mostly now just symbolic. But the custom we have of dyeing eggs at Easter comes directly out of the old ways of Lent: folks were so excited to welcome eggs back into their daily diet each spring, they celebrated by dyeing them with natural dyes like beetroot, chamomile flowers, red cabbage, and onion skins. I still like dyeing eggs with these things of nature.

Being a time of spare solemness, it is not surprising that there are not many celebratory foods that accompany Lent. There is one, however: The humble pretzel. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. It is thought that the name “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially, evoking the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over the chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your chest: classic pretzel shape. This penitential bread––again, so common nowadays so as to be nothing special––has a history that goes back many many centuries. The first pretzels were thought to be made in the 6th century. Some historians think they go back three centuries more.

Connexions like these are, I think, so fascinating. That a common pretzel can have such interesting roots (and deep ones, at that) and mark our celebratory days (or penitential ones, in this case) is such a wonderful thing.

Love is at the heart of our table no matter the meal or the season, even in the humble dishes that make up our meals during Lent. Perhaps there is no better Valentine’s Day than one that falls on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are made from the earth and to earth we shall return. The time is short. Ash Wednesday is, at its core, a day to remember the brevity of things and to understand that we are here to love and to lift each other up. These forty days of Lent are a good time, I feel, to focus not on what we deprive ourselves, but on what we can do to enrich the lives of others. So go on: Love with all your might.

 

Image: “La Quaresima Saggia” by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. Engraving, c.17th century. The haggard old woman of Lent, trodding upon the remnants of Carnevale, framed by the foods of her season: fish and snails, onions and other root crops, beans, and I’m pretty sure those are cardoon stalks at the top right.

 

Forty Days, & Your March Book of Days

Tonight we eat pancakes for our supper. It is Shrove Tuesday, and with this dinner we clear out the pantry, for tomorrow, we enter a new month and the lenten season, too: our annual forty days of solemn reflection that set the stage for rebirth and the miracle of spring. Forty days, or Quadragesima in Latin, fortieth, which is why the Italians call this season Quaresima. It sounds lovely, no? Not nearly as spare as the English word lent, pared down to four letters, bare-bones. But whether we say lent or quaresima, it is, traditionally, a period in stark contrast to the excess of carnival, which has been going on for weeks now in festive towns like Venice and New Orleans and ends tonight with Mardi Gras. And once Mardi Gras passes, so lent, quaresima, begins.

It is no secret that here at home, it’s been a rough time for us. We lost my dad earlier this month. But life is all of this, the joy and the sorrow, embracing it all, not turning from the hardest parts. And so we do not turn away and we love, even if it brings hardship. Family was the most important thing to my dad. And my dad, it seems, took care of us to the very end. While the past few months brought many challenges his way, and worry on the part of the rest of us, Dad took care of that worry for us. He checked out on his own terms, at peace, it seems, with all he had to make peace with, and he took those worries we had about him and dispelled them, sent them out to the world, diluting them to nothing. One last great act of love and caring.

Ceremony, celebration, is a curious thing. It appears at times like frivolity, and it certainly can be. But there are deeper roots to these ceremonies we hold, year after year, as our parents and grandparents did, through time immemorial. Roots that grow through the ground, the ground that holds my father and all our ancestors, all who came before us. It is the one commonality we all share. Were it not for death, we would have no pressing reason to celebrate, no reason to make the most of each day. And this is why we say there is a seat for death at the table at all our celebrations. Death is the guest who must be present at every celebration, every ceremony. Without death, the “ceremony of a day” is nothing.

And so we approach these forty days, forty days that begin with ashes and an invitation to be well, to put all our efforts into making a good life for ourselves and for all around us: “Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And yet there is more than this, too. The dust is what remains and there is something more that is larger than all of us. Here, I know, we run into belief systems and philosophies, but I think we can all agree that something more remains once we are gone: spirit, soul, memories… call it what you will. What you call it does not matter.

Last Friday, after work, I stopped at the rehab center where I would go see Dad most every day for the last few weeks of his life. More than two weeks had passed since I was last there, and it felt important that day to stop and to say thank you to the nurses and assistants who took such good care of him in his last days on this earth. It was, perhaps, another aspect of closure I was seeking. And so I drove up, with a heavy heart, and I entered the building. At the reception desk, where earlier in the month I had been checking in multiple times each day, I explained, as tears welled up in my eyes, what I wished to do. The volunteer there expressed her condolences and she issued me a visitor’s badge. I went up to the second floor, stepped off the elevator, and walked the corridors, past Dad’s first room, past the nurse’s station, past the room Dad moved to halfway through his stay, past the second nurse’s station, and then another loop around again. There were RNs and nursing assistants everywhere, but I didn’t recognize a single soul. Not one of them. Even Dad’s old roommate and his wife: they were gone. “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?” echoed through my mind, and I began chuckling a bit. There was nothing for me there. I stepped again into the elevator. I descended, and I left the building. Outside, the sun was bright and the air was warm. There was a gardener working in a bed nearby. I looked at him twice, but definitely did not recognize him, either.

 

Here is a link to where you’ll find your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for March. It may not be updated to March’s calendar when I first publish this blog chapter, but if not, check back again in an hour or two, for it will be. This month’s cover star is a type of shaving brush tree that we see round Lake Worth and neighboring towns. The tree loses its leaves each winter, one of our few deciduous trees here in South Florida. Come spring, it blossoms in advance of the year’s new green leaves. The blossoms are amazing bursts of pink energy––the pink shaving brushes that give the tree its common name. Death and rebirth: the story never grows old.