Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), Ash Wednesday: Christians enter the season of Lent

Rows of paczkis for Fat Tuesday

Paczkis for Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). Photo by Kurman Communications LLC, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 13 and WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 14: Western Christians officially enter the season of repentance on Ash Wednesday—this year, also Valentine’s Day—following any last indulgences made the day before, on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

2024: According to the Catholic News Agency, this year’s convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day has several advantages. “I think the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day can really show us how we’re supposed to do penance — not only as individuals, but in communion with others, and how our penance is always ordered toward our neighbor,” said Father Dustin Dought, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) (read more here). Father Dought also adds: “So if a couple, say, were to have that [one large] meal in the evening, I think there’s something beautiful about, ‘Oh, I’m having a small breakfast or a small lunch; I’m eating in very small portions throughout my day out of love for God, but also because my beloved and I will enjoy our normal-sized meal together.’”


pancake tower for mardi gras

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally an opportunity for Christian households to cleanse their cupboards of butter and eggs in preparation for Lent, Mardi Gras (literally, “Fat Tuesday”) has evolved far beyond its simple, pancakes-and-paczkis roots. The food-laden traditions of Shrove Tuesday do still exist—in England, pancake races have been held continuously since the 15th century, and doughnut shops worldwide continue to bake millions of paczkis—but the elaborate festivities have morphed into mega-festivals across the globe. Whether it’s Carnival in Brazil, Carnevale in Italy or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, days-long events finally come to a close on Ash Wednesday, as Christians begin the 40 days of Lent.

Recipes! Shrimp gumbo, jambalaya and King Cake can be on your menu, with help from Food Network, Southern Living, Taste of Home and the New York Times.


Epiphany signals the official start of Carnival season, and Montevideo, Uruguay, festivities for Carnival begin in mid-January. In most cities, events typically begin one or two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday, with colorful parades, masquerade dress, festive music and, of course, plenty of sweet and fried breads. Whether it’s the Polish paczki, the English pancake or the Swedish semla, the tradition of using sugar, lard, butter and eggs on Fat Tuesday has as many cultural variations as nations that celebrate.

In the UK and Ireland, the week prior to Ash Wednesday is known as “Shrovetide,” ending on Shrove Tuesday and always involving pancakes. Shrove Tuesday is derived from the word shrive, which means “to confess.” The Christian Mardi Gras began in Medieval Europe, although Venice remains one of the most sought-after destinations for the holiday.

Did you know? “Carnival” derives from the Latin carne levare, which means, “to take away meat.”

Across the world, in Rio de Janeiro, Carnival has become such a massive event—so much so, in fact, that the country attracts 70 percent of its tourists during this time! Mardi Gras came to the United States in 1699, when French explorers Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne were sent to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane. Today, Mardi Gras reigns strong in New Orleans.

ashes Ash Wednesday

Receiving ashes on the forehead is traditional on Ash Wednesday. Photo courtesy of PickPik


In representation of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, most Christians observe the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) in preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday, able adults fast and able Christians abstain from meat and practice repentance.

Records indicate that from the earliest centuries, the days preceding Jesus Christ’s death were filled with a solemnity of fasting and penitence. The custom of clergy placing ashes upon the foreheads of the faithful is rooted in the practice of doing so as a sign of mourning and repentance to God; traditionally, palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned into ashes for Ash Wednesday services, and the ashes are then blessed. The Catholic Church permits ashes on the forehead for anyone who wishes to receive them—not just baptized Catholics—and the practice of ashes is kept by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Anglicans.

Posadas Navidenas: Hispanic Christians anticipate Nativity with processions, traditions

Las Posadas kids and procession

A Las Posadas procession. Photo by Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 16: The Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight with Posadas Navidenas (or, more simply, Las Posadas) across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community.

Did you know? As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.


Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation,” Posada recalls the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered on their journey. Posada describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayers, tamales and ponche navideno are served, washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog. Children may hit a five- or seven-pointed piñata, often filled with dried fruits, sugar sticks, candies and nuts. Often, Christmas carols are also sung by all. (Learn traditional carols and more at The Other Side of the Tortilla.)

Revelries outside of Mexico can vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.


Advent: Western Christians begin season of preparations for Christ’s birth

Advent wreath, lit, all candles

Photo by Bruce / Starfish, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3: Advent wreaths glow and the anticipation of Jesus’s birth begins as Western Christians around the world begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays leading to Christmas, many Christians light a new candle on the wreath. Often, these wreaths are a part of congregational worship during this season—but many families also make their own wreaths at home.

One unusual question in 2023 is: At what time of day will families light the fourth and fifth candles? That’s an issue this year, because the final Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve.


For Western Christians, Advent focuses on both the ancient arrival of Jesus and the Second Coming; on both spiritual longing and alertness. Most churches are draped in purple and/or blue during the Advent season, representing penitence and hope.

Did you know? Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—the Eastern equivalent of the Western Advent—on November 15. The Nativity Fast lasts 40 days, and incorporates prayer and strict fasting.

Each Sunday during Advent, a new candle is lit on the Advent wreath. Typically, an Advent wreath is fashioned of evergreens and contains three purple candles and one rose one, with an optional white pillar candle at its center. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and the white candle may be lit on Christmas Eve. (Tradition varies: in Protestant churches, candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, blue candles are common.)

Origins of the Advent wreath are believed to be Germanic, though opinions vary. The wreath’s circular nature now represents the eternity of God, and the increasing glow of the candles symbolizes a people previously living in spiritual darkness and, at last, witnessing the coming of the Light of the World. Advent calendars and Jesse Trees have also gained popularity of use during this Christian season.

Make a DIY Advent wreath, with information on structuring a base, candle-holders, greens and decorations at Catholic Culture.

Create a chic Advent calendarno matter what your taste—with the multitude of ideas suggested by Martha Stewart. For more ideas, check out Country Living and House Beautiful.

Blessings for the Advent wreath, for a Christmas tree and more are at the official site for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Nativity Fast: Eastern Orthodox Christians begin fast, prepare for Nativity

vegan food, Orthodox Christian Nativity Fast

For the Nativity Fast, Eastern Orthodox Christians avoid meat, dairy, fish, oil and wine (with a few days of exception). Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15: The American Thanksgiving may still be around the corner, but millions of Orthodox Christians across the globe are turning toward the season of Jesus’s birth—which they refer to as the Nativity—with, today, the start of the Nativity Fast.

For many centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared for the Nativity with a 40-day Nativity Fast. Traditionally, two periods comprise the Nativity Fast: Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. (Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar. Some Orthodox follow other traditional calendars, such as the Julian calendar.)

In the Gregorian calendar, December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian church—no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky; afterward, the fast is joyously broken. Many then head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, while others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

Did you know? The Nativity Fast thematically focuses on glorification of the Incarnation of God; the Western Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus. 

Traditional Orthodox fasting is no simple task: It means giving up meat and dairy, in addition to fish, wine and oil (fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days). Yet Orthodox teaching instructs that fasting be undertaken with gladness and in a sense of earnest anticipation—in the promise that these devout preparations will deepen reflections on the moment when God became human. Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed. Prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

You may ask: Are American Orthodox Christians allowed to break the Nativity Fast for Thanksgiving? In short: It depends. Under the direction of Archbishop Iakovos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America from 1959-1996, a special dispensation was issued that permitted the faithful to break fast in order to celebrate Thanksgiving. On a local level, most clergy give dispensation for Thanksgiving, though there are some that do not. For those Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, the Nativity Fast starts after the American Thanksgiving.


What is the purpose of fasting, according to the Eastern Orthodox Christian church? Following is pastoral advice from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 


Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

On December 25 (or January 7, in the Julian calendar) it is the Feast of the Nativity. On this day fasting is forbidden, and a fast-free period—or Afterfeast—lasts through January 4 (or later, depending on one’s calendar).

Allhallowtide, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos: A trio of ‘Halloween’

Allhallowtide, Halloween

Photo by Morton1905, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31-THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Deeply rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin. It’s not all solemn, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids!


Allhallowtide, the triduum of Halloween, recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of deceased loved ones. In the Christian faith, the two days following All Hallows Eve—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that are now with God.

Did you know? In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture.


mulled wine, samhain

Mulled wine is common fare for Samhain. Photo courtesy of PickPik

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. During this time of year, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.


Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls.

In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

Dia de los Muertos dressed up

Dressed up for Dia de los Muertos. Photo by Giovanny Hernández Rodríguez, courtesy of Pexels


What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

Pope Francis reminds the world that St. Thérèse of Liseux’s ‘little way’ can help us reclaim hope

Photo of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2023—On this Catholic “feast day” of St. Teresa of Avila—the 16th-century namesake of the 19th-century St. Thérèse of Lisieux—Pope Francis has published one of his most inspiring apostolic letters. This tribute to the wisdom of St. Thérèse comes two weeks after her own October 1 feast day and more than ten months after the 150th anniversary of her birth—an anniversary that Francis names in the title of his new letter.

This new letter ranks as one of Francis’s most timely and most inspiring messages to the world, so we are recommending that our readers check it out.

The Catholic News Service (as published in America magazine) began its story this way:

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, long one of Pope Francis’ favorite saints, teaches Christians “the little way” of love, self-giving, concern for others and complete trust in the mercy of God, the pope said in a new document. “At a time when human beings are obsessed with grandeur and new forms of power, she points out to us the little way,” he wrote. “In an age that casts aside so many of our brothers and sisters, she teaches us the beauty of concern and responsibility for one another.”

But we all can read the entire letter Francis wrote, translated into many global languages, at the Vatican website.

In that text, Francis also explains why he chose this particular date:

St. Thérèse is one of the best known and most beloved saints in our world. Like Saint Francis of Assisi, she is loved by non-Christians and nonbelievers as well. In addition, she has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the most significant figures for contemporary humanity. We would do well to delve more deeply into her message as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of her birth in Alençon (2 January 1873) and the centenary of her beatification in 1923. Yet I have not chosen to issue this Exhortation on either of those dates, or on her liturgical Memorial (her October 1 feast day), so that this message may transcend those celebrations and be taken up as part of the spiritual treasury of the Church. Its publication on the liturgical Memorial of Saint Teresa of Avila is a way of presenting St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face as the mature fruit of the reform of the Carmel and of the spirituality of the great Spanish saint.

Our recommendation to our magazine readers, this week, is:

Enjoy this fresh wisdom from Francis because it might bring fresh light into your life as well.

Around St. Francis’ feast day, check with local congregations for pet blessings

Pet blessings have become a popular local custom

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 4—This is the annual feast day for St. Francis of Assisi—but the 40-year trend of hosting pet blessings now is scattered throughout the autumn in congregations nationwide.

The most elaborate annual pet blessing, each year, is held at St. John the Divine in New York City. The landmark church hosted its first blessing of the animals in 1985, which is credited with touching off a wave of such blessings nationwide that continues to grow nearly 40 years later. This year, the church held its blessing on October 1 and posted a video of the entire service on its website. (That video is more than 2 hours long—but you can find the blessing near the end.)

Many Catholic and Protestant congregations across the U.S. host versions of a St. Francis blessing service either on the actual feast day or on a convenient autumn weekend. Many churches held services October 1 and many others will offer blessings on October 8.

Dates vary widely. So, if you are interested, check local listings.

Who was St. Francis?

St. Francis of Assisi not only founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of St. Clare, but he also created the first Nativity scene. St. Francis insisted that animals are an integral part of God’s creation.

As with many famous saints, St. Francis’ life began in wealth. Born to a cloth merchant in Assisi in 1181, Francis lived in luxury until war called him away from home, in 1204. It was immediately following the war that Francis received a vision. He soon lost his desire for a worldly life and returned to Assisi as a peasant. Francis’ father disowned him for his choice to follow Christ, and the saint-to-be began both begging and preaching on the streets. Francis created an order that would, in 10 years, number more than 5,000.

St. Francis was canonized less than two years after his death.

St. Francis wasn’t the first to raise the question of animals in heaven—and he wasn’t the first to affirm his belief, either! (It’s a common theme in Psalms that all creatures of God, whether human or beast, have a duty to praise God.) Nor was St. Francis the last to preach this message. Although some evangelical Christians believe that our pets are barred from heaven, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous as an early advocate for humane treatment of animals. Wesley preached that we will see our pets in heaven.

Most importantly today for the millions who are concerned about global warming, St. Francis challenged everyone to protect nature, preaching that we are, after all, God’s stewards on earth.

Legends about St. Francis paint a portrait of a man whose donkey wept upon his death; who blessed a wolf and commanded him to stop harming townspeople and their flocks; and who garnered rapt attention from birds when he told his companions that he would “preach to” his “sisters the birds.” It’s said that during his sermon, not one bird flew away.

St. Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. In his Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis refers to “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon” and even “Sister Death.” The saint called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters.” This time of year, many congregations sing the hymn, All Creatures of Our God and King, which was based on Francis’ Canticle.


Whether you’re honoring St. Francis or your own pet today, there are plenty of activities to choose from! Those wishing to remember the saint can pray the Canticle of the Sun; learn more about the fantastic festival in Assisi today; or cook up an Italian feast. (Catholic Culture has additional ideas.)

Aside from taking your pet for a walk or to a pet-blessing service, animal lovers can raise money for a local animal shelter; make Fido an herbal flea collar; or even take a lesson in pet communication. (TLC has more.)