Category Archives: Lent

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: class 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.


Fat Tuesday

The Carnevale of Venezia, or the Carnival of Venice, began this year on the last Saturday of January and soon, on Tuesday, it will draw to a close. Tuesday brings Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French––Fat Tuesday. There are certain cities that we think of as central to Carnival: certainly Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and New Orleans. But Carnival is a celebration that is known far and wide, especially through Europe and Latin America.

My family is not a Carnival people––it’s just not a tradition my grandparents brought with them from their Italian villages. But Carnival is important. It is the last great indulgence before the arrival of Lent, forty days marked by somberness and penitence––and, in times past, a time of strict dietary restrictions. Carnival season, in fact, takes its name from the Latin carne levamen–– “Good-bye to the flesh.” Traditionally, the supply of meat would be finished during Carnevale until spring, and so it truly was a goodbye to the flesh, and a farewell to the provisions of winter. The traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. It is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones.

I love the costumes and the masks of a traditional Venetian Carnevale. It is a celebration of excess and the costumes, elaborate as they are, encourage this. Who knows who is behind each of those masks? Carnevale in Italy has its connections to celebrations of the new year, which, for the early Romans, was the First of March. The costumes and the masks come out of this tradition, for they were part of the Roman New Year celebration. The old year was dying, the new one being born. Out of that chaos came a festival of excess, and masks provided anonymity. The Romans eventually moved the start of the year to January 1, but old habits die hard: The costumes and the masks then and now give us license to be whomever we wish, at least for a little while.

In England and in the United States, Shrove Tuesday means one thing: Pancakes for supper. The meal is an easy way of using up all the eggs, milk, and sugar that remained in the larder before the 40 fasting days of Lent commenced. In Germany, the tradition for the Tuesday before Lent calls for doughnuts, and the night there is known as Fasnacht or Faschnacht. The idea is the same: using up all the remaining lard, sugar, and butter before Lent begins. But whether it is pancakes or doughnuts, there is something special about eating breakfast for dinner, or about eating homemade doughnuts after dinner. It’s a little something, nothing dramatic, just something that marks the day, something celebratory, reminding us of the importance of enjoying what we have. Once Ash Wednesday arrives, Lent will, for forty days, remind us of the brevity of things. The reality is we are very fortunate and we should do our best to remember the gifts we’ve been given… like this, another Mardi Gras, another Fasnacht, another Shrove Tuesday. And as they say in New Orleans, Laissez les bon temps rouler!


Image: “Festa delle Marie,” by a German photographer who goes by the name fotogoocom, was taken at the Carnevale of Venezia in 2015. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.


Your April Book of Days

April First brings All Fools Day, April Fools… and your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for April. The tricks and practical jokes today are traditionally supposed to end at noon, but I’d be wary all day long if I were you. I’ll admit here and now: I’ve got nothing up my sleeve this year. Not a thing. But I always love hearing about your April Fools pranks, so please, share them. The comments below are an excellent place to do so.

Our Lenten journey is fast coming to a close and we come this month, in April’s second week, to Holy Week, with all its beautiful mysteries. Maundy Thursday always is one of my favorite nights: a pilgrimage of sorts. There are years when I don’t enter a church all year and there are years where I go more often, but Holy Thursday is the night when I go, typically, to three of them, in the dark and quiet late night hours, to sit there and breathe in the stillness. My grandmother Assunta taught me this, and each year I go and I think of her. This, to me, the core of tradition: to maintain those bridges across time and space. This year, I will think of my father, too. I suspect it will not be an easy night for me, but it will be an important one.

I know my writings have been few and far between lately, and for this I apologize. I’m here with you, I’m just having a hard time lately getting out of my own way. But folks tell me this is to be expected, and while the pain of losing a loved one never goes away, it does, I know, evolve. And so I am evolving. I’ll write to you when I can. Sometime during Holy Week, I am sure. Maybe twice, who knows? And most likely for St. Mark’s Eve on the 24th, and again for May Eve, Walpurgis Night… as the wheel of the year clicks again by one more cog, this time toward summer. There is magic to be had in all of these holy days/holidays … and my wish for me, for you, is that we all tap into that magic. My dad believed in the value of hard work and a job done well. I’ve got a job to do in writing this Book of Days, and I’d best get to it. He wouldn’t put up with me slacking off.

By the way, if you miss us, well… we do a better job of keeping in touch these days via our Instagram feed: @conviviobookworks. More of a picture book!