Category Archives: Lent

Carnevale

This past weekend marked the beginning of the Carnival Season in Venice. Carnevale, as it is called there, is a time of masks and intrigue and high Baroque fashion. This year it is a bit later than usual; Carnevale is a moveable celebration based on the timing of Lent, which is based on the timing of Easter… all of which is based on lunar events, even within our solar-based calendar. And so Lent, which typically begins in February, won’t begin this year until March 6th, making March 5th Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras: the conclusion and height of Carnevale.

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. And the costumes and masks of Venice are, I think, the most beautiful of all Carnival finery.

It is a time of clearing out the larder, for Lent will bring sacred restrictions on food. Nowadays, of course, the restrictions of Lent are pretty easy: the only hard and fast rule is no meat on Fridays. In times past, though, Lent was indeed a time of serious fasting: no meat, no eggs, no fun, no nothing. The provisions had to be used up before Lent and so that, too, was part of Carnevale’s excess. The Carnival Season became a time of feasting to use up all the sausages, all the eggs, all the things that would be banned for the somber forty days to come. But the fast was as much a common sense strategy as a religious ceremony: by late winter, provisions that were stored up were beginning to dwindle; a time of restriction and fasting helped insure the populace would make it through to spring, when fresh food would once again be available.

The elaborate costumes of a Venetian Carnevale go hand in hand with the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy, which is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. The Baroque costumes and the plump man ringed with sausages are both in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She’ll come soon enough. For now, we celebrate. Traditional festive foods for Carnevale vary throughout Italy, but many, especially the sweets, are fried. It is even thought that the ever popular Cannoli, the Italian dessert known around the world, originated as a Carnevale treat from Sicily. A simpler Carnevale recipe to try, and a favorite throughout Italy at this time of year, is Chiacciere. They take their name from the Italian for gossip, or small talk, but we’re talking here not about gossip but about strips of lemon-scented dough, fried crisp and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. You’ll find many recipes online for Chiacciere through a web search. My sister is making some next week; we’ll be enjoying them, and if you are, too, let us know!

 

Image: Venice Carnival 2011, photograph by Petra Abendroth. 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: 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.