Easter: Christians revel in Jesus’ resurrection, amid continuing pandemic guidelines

Crucifix on cliff, sunshine, Easter

Photo courtesy of Piqsels

SUNDAY, APRIL 4: Western Christians across the globe revel in the Resurrection of Jesus today, rejoicing in the promise of new life: It’s Easter! Following the solemn 40-day reflections of Lent and bridging into the Easter Triduum—the evening of Maundy Thursday through the evening of Easter Sunday—Christians celebrate a new day. (Note: Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate Pascha, the Orthodox term for Easter, on May 2, this year.)

The New Testament tells Christians that the Resurrection of Christ is the core of their faith, and on this grand day, bells are rung in praise and adherents joyously profess their faith.

A simple Easter: Virtual services for Easter will continue this year, although many churches will also be offering outdoor services from their parking lot. Photo by noratheone, courtesy of Flickr

EASTER IN 2021: VIRTUAL VS. IN-PERSON

Amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic and the widespread practice of social distancing, Easter Sunday will be different for families across the globe. Most families will have the option of streaming masses and services again this year—or, as many churches have begun holding “parking lot” services, gathering outdoors in a socially-distant environment.

Looking to access virtual Easter masses? Many churches will be hosting their own virtual Easter masses, but services are also available for streaming at Catholic TV and Christian World Media. To watch services from the Vatican, follow the YouTube channel Vatican News.

Family gatherings may be permitted, depending on the size of the gathering and who has been fully vaccinated, according to reports. However, as detailed in this article from ABC News, restriction guidelines are still being developed.

A TOMB AT SUNRISE

Gospel accounts say that early on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene (and, though accounts vary, other women as well) traveled to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body. Upon reaching the tomb, an earthquake shook the ground; the stone was moved from the tomb, and a holy messenger announced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Though no specific moment of Resurrection is recorded, Mary Magdalene’s encounter has, since the 2nd century, been celebrated as Easter. The Resurrection is described as having occurred c. 30 CE.

For Christians today, meals most often involve white-and-gold settings, fresh lilies on the table and, in many homes, a sacred Paschal Candle. A traditional Easter menu also would typically feature lamb—a symbol of Christ, the Paschal Lamb. However, Easter hams now far outpace cuts of lamb.

In France and Belgium, the bells that “went to Rome on Maundy Thursday” return home for the evening Easter Vigil, only to bring Easter eggs to boys and girls—or so, the story has it.

In most countries with a substantial Christian population, Easter is a public holiday.

White rabbit, egg holder, candies, Easter

Photo courtesy of Pixnio

SECULAR EASTER: A BUNNY, EGGS & MORE

Easter in America may be characterized as much by the Easter Bunny and pastel-hued candies as it is by Christian joy in Christ’s Resurrection. Egg hunts, treat-filled baskets and festive brunches mark Easter for many American families.

EGGS: The springtime egg has symbolized the season’s new life since before the life of Jesus, drawing back to ancient civilizations. Nonetheless, the egg holds a place of prominence in many secular Easter traditions. Children around the globe search for hidden eggs, and decorating eggs can range from simple to elaborate—as much as the artist allows. International chocolatiers mold sweet concoctions in the shape of delicate eggs, with the most exquisite replications selling for hundreds of dollars.

RECIPES & RESOURCES

Looking for a great recipe or ideas to spruce up your Easter table?

Find delicious recipes, from appetizers to brunch to dessert, at Food Network and AllRecipes.

Give eggs extra style, or try an Easter craft, with ideas from HGTV and Martha Stewart.

Kid-friendly Easter coloring pages, cards, games and more are at the UK’s Activity Village.

Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday: It’s Mardi Gras and more as Christians look to Lent

Ash Wednesday ashes

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16 and WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17: Whip up a batch of indulgent treats rich in eggs, sugar and cream, and let yourself indulge—it’s Fat Tuesday on February 16! On the following day, Christians will enter the repentant period of Lent, leading to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday.

Did you know? Originally, Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras, in French) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning “to confess.” 

FAT TUESDAY: TREATS GALORE

During the last 24 hours before the start of Western Christian Lent, recipes vary by country: English families fry up pancakes, Polish and Lithuanians serve donuts and Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries. Yet all customs reflect the old Christian tradition of using up the rich foods in one’s home before starting the fasting season of Lent. Then, following Fat Tuesday, more than a billion Western Christians begin fasting for the start of the season of Lent.

A (MOSTLY) VIRTUAL MARDI GRAS: While there will be no Mardi Gras parades this year in New Orleans this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the famous city will be still be offering house floats, Mardi Gras cocktails in bars and restaurants, king cakes and more. In addition WYES-TV is releasing a special called “New Orleans Parades from the Past,” in a one-hour program available for viewing here.

(For details on the guidelines in New Orleans, check out the city’s Phased Reopening Guidelines.)

MARDI GRAS: CARNE LEVARE VS. CARNIVAL

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Most years, street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival, while a customary eating of salted meat takes a literal meaning to the day in Iceland. (AFAR has an article on what Mardi Gras will look like in during the pandemic.)

PANCAKES & RACES: Indulging in paczkis (pronounced pounch-keys) may be customary in the United States, but the custom of eating pancakes in the United Kingdom takes place on such a massive scale that the tradition has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” The most famous pancake race has been held annually since 1445 in Olney at Buckinghamshire (this year, the race has been canceled, but with plans to bring it back in full in 2022.) Legend has it that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of the time until she heard the church bells ringing for service, and she raced out of the house while still carrying her pan with pancakes. In Olney, contestants of the pancake race must carry a frying pan and toss pancakes along the race course; all participants are required to wear an apron and scarf. A church service always follows the races.

AUTHENTIC RECIPES: For all of those staying home on Mardi Gras, check out recipes for everything from jambalaya and crab cakes to king cake at Taste of Home and Southern Living.

ASH WEDNESDAY (& CLEAN MONDAY)

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and prayer. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader typically swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections.

2021 update: This year, many churches are offering alternatives to the typical Ash Wednesday services. Some are offering the application of ashes on the forehead via a cotton applicator, while others are offering DIY ashes. Check with your local congregation for details.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan; similarly, Lent marks 40 days—not counting Sundays.

CLEAN MONDAY: Eastern Orthodox Christians will start Great Lent the same week as Western Christians, this year, and in 2021, March 2 is Clean Monday—the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. (For those following the Julian calendar, Clean Monday falls 13 days later, on the Gregorian March 15). Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals.

Twelfth Night, Epiphany & Theophany: Closing Christmas, celebrating the Magi

“We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain; following yonder star.”
-“We Three Kings,” written by John Henry Hopkins Jr., 1857
Twelfth Night procession and festivities

Twelfth Night festivities near London, England. Photo copyright Stephen Craven, courtesy of Geograph.org and licensed for reuse

TUESDAY, JANUARY 5 and WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6: Mayhem and jolliness rule on Twelfth Night, the final event of the 12 days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany. On the following day, January 6, Epiphany is celebrated in in Western Christianity, thus officially ending the Christmas season in the church; this feast is known as Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. Also, many Christians in the U.S. marked Epiphany on Sunday January 3 this year. In fact, the official U.S. Roman Catholic calendar considers all of this week to be an extension of “Christmas week,” so the first week of the next Christian season (Ordinary Time) does not begin until January 11, 2021. 

TWELFTH NIGHT: TRADITIONS AND (VIRTUAL) JOVIALITY

Three kings, magi, night

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In the Christian church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, and the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

NEWS 2021: As with many holidays this year, virtual celebrations are taking the place of many in-person festivities for Twelfth Night 2021. From New York, reenactors present Salutations of the Season, an online event (read more here); similarly, an annual Twelfth Night event in Pennsylvania will be moving online this year. From the Cathedral of the Incarnation, the Cathedral Choirs will perform on January 3, with their annual program, “Twelfth Night and the Procession of Three Kings” (get the Zoom link on the cathedral’s website).

Did you know? In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night.

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY: REVELATION

ON EPIPHANY, Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian church anticipated the coming of Jesus—and, of course, Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses—but Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi. With the arrival of representatives of other nations came the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

ON THEOPHANY, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, although Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

CUSTOMS AND VISITING MAGI

Epiphany Kings Day cake

A traditional galette de rois (cake of the kings). Photo courtesy of PxHere

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, and in most years, festivities include parades, parties, cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, Epiphany (called Theophany) commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River; because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God.

RECIPES & MORE

Whether baking a Spanish roscon de reyes (kings’ ring) or French galette de rois (cake of the kings), have some Twelfth Night fun!

Sip lamb’s wool (a type of wassail) and bite into a king cake, two customary dishes served on Twelfth Night. Check out recipes at Fish Eaters.

An English Twelfth Night cake recipe is courtesy of the New York Times.

Twelfth Night turkey with wild rice stuffing and ale reduction is a recipe provided by Food Network.

In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of Carnival season, which lasts through Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

Christmas: Drive-in church services, virtual gatherings celebrate Nativity in a unique year

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

-“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” 1944

Candle gift tree Christmas

Photo courtesy of StockSnap

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25: Christmas 2020 will look different for billions across the globe, as many are separated from family, friends and traditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, we heartily say, in spite of the hardships and challenges: Merry Christmas!

In 1944, Judy Garland was the first to sing the famous ballad “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the cinematic screen, in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Perhaps in no year since that time—until this year—have the lyrics been so appropriate, again. Though many will be unable to visit family and friends for Christmas this year, virtual gatherings will be conducted in the hopes that, next year, “we all will be together.” (USA Today has a column on this subject.)

2020 NEWS: Since traveling to see family members is incredibly risky this year, experts say—only one state in the continental U.S. remains out of the “high risk” category for Covid-19 (and, Forbes lists the 10 highest-risk states)—many will be gathering virtually for Christmas and finding unique ways to share experiences. News articles worldwide are reporting on plans to drop off favorite dishes, gifts—even complete recipe ingredients—on the doorsteps of family members and friends. In this article from The Guardian, one family hopes to still enjoy Christmas dinner together, but in the outdoor garden (despite the weather); another woman plans to virtually play board games with faraway family members on Christmas Day.

To accommodate churchgoers on Christmas Day, many houses of worship are offering virtual, drive-in or outdoor Masses. In addition, Pope Francis has, by decree, issued permission for priests to say four Masses on Christmas Day in 2020.

CHRISTMAS: A MAJOR HOLIDAY FOR 2 BILLION CHRISTIANS

It’s Christmas Day for the majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians, as the birth of Jesus is celebrated in great rejoicing. While the birth year of Jesus is only speculated, December 25 is embraced by a multitude of Christians worldwide as the day Mary and Joseph welcomed their newborn son in a manger. With the celebration of Jesus’s birth, the season of Advent closes for Western Christians; the Nativity Fast ends for Eastern Christians; and the 12 days of Christmastide begin. In many countries, Christmas Day is a public holiday.

Note: Some Eastern Christians mark Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which pushes many Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian churches to a January 7 celebration of Nativity (Christmas).

Many Christians believe the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfills an ancient Messianic prophesy. Two canonical gospels record Jesus as having been born to Mary and her husband, Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Tradition tells that the birth took place in a stable, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Nearby shepherds, told of the birth by angels, came to see the baby; magi came later, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. The Star of Bethlehem is believed to have led the magi to Jesus, and the visit of the magi is celebrated as Epiphany, on January 6.

Nativity scene Christmas

Photo courtesy of SnappyGoat.com

THE NATIVITY: A HISTORY

From the formative years of the church’s celebrations to the Nativity noted today, a multitude of customs have become associated with Christmas: displaying manger scenes, caroling, sending greetings and hanging stockings by a fireplace, to name just a few. Christian saints have been responsible for creating some of the customs—namely, St. Francis of Assisi for the nativity scene, and St. Nicholas for stockings and candy canes—while others are secular or even pre-Christian.

The Chronography of 354 AD is the oldest surviving reference to a Roman celebration for the birth of Jesus on December 25; in the East, the birth of Jesus was already observed with the Epiphany, on January 6. In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was outshone by Epiphany, though by the later medieval period, Christmas-related holidays were starting to become more popular.

Christmas encountered turbulence through the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens were creating the “heartfelt goodwill” that morphed Christmas into a more secular holiday based on goodwill, family and jollity. For billions around the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

EASTERN CUSTOMS: RUSSIA TO BETHLEHEM

Approximately half of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas with Western Christians on December 25. That list includes the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Albania, Cyprus and Finland—as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

For a variety of traditional reasons, Orthodox churches in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia hold their Nativity (Christmas) observance in January. This variance primarily involves the older Julian calendar, which pushes Christmas to January 7, but further wrinkles in the tradition affect some Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. The very last Eastern Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated by the Armenians living in Jerusalem, who travel to Bethlehem for an hours-long, centuries-old liturgy in the Church of the Nativity that takes place as late as January 18 or 19.

FOOD & RECIPES

In search of Christmas recipes? Look no further!

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Food Network, find an array of professional recipes.

From AllRecipes, gather favored suggestions for dinner, breakfast and dessert.

From Food & Wine, cook up something fancy or unique.

St. Patrick’s Day: Read, cook and watch, this year, to immerse in Irish culture

Abbey in Ireland, St. Patrick's Day

Kylemore Abbey, Ireland. Cook Irish food, read Irish books or watch movies about the Emerald Isle to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, MARCH 17: Cancellations of St. Patrick’s Day parades and events are occurring worldwide due to mandates for the novel coronavirus, but those hoping to honor St. Patrick don’t have to go out this year to do it: Recipes abound online (see links at the bottom of this post), and sources like USA Today are offering alternative activities (click here for a list of five popular Irish books). Forbes suggests six at-home ways to pay homage to Irish culture—”even without a parade.”

Green clover, St. Patrick's Day

Three-leaf clovers were used by St. Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity. Photo courtesy of Needpix

ST. PATRICK: FROM SLAVE TO SAINT

The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, the young man who would become known as St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

Surprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval.

PATRICK’S ‘BREASTPLATE’

St. Pat’s Day may be a secular occasion in many communities, but it also has deep religious roots that matter to millions.

The purest forms of religious expression, each year, occur—naturally—in Ireland. One of the most popular posts in the decade-long history of ReadTheSpirit is a collection of three versions of the famous prayer known as The Breastplate:

Versions 1 and 2: Here is St. Patrick’s Breastplate in English prose and in 19th Century lines of a hymn.
Version 3:
We also have St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Gaelic.

St. Patrick stained glass

A stained-glass representation of St. Patrick. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You probably remember some of the most famous lines from St. Patrick, such as:

God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me

And also:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

But, there is so much more to this classic prayer!

Alternatively, start here for a Gaelic version and follow the link to find two more English versions, one as poetry and one as refashioned for a hymn.

Did you know? St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland.

RECIPES, CRAFT IDEAS & MORE

Got dreams of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, too):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from Parenting.com.

Meatfare & Cheesefare Sundays: Orthodox Christians prepare for Lent

Cheeseburgers, meat and dairy

On February 23 and March 1, 2020, Orthodox Christians will partake in meat and dairy for the last time before Pascha (Easter). Photo by Marco Verch, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23 and SUNDAY, MARCH 1: Lent is quickly approaching for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and on February 23, Eastern Orthodox churches take the first steps toward their traditional Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday (also referred to as the Sunday of the Last Judgment). After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter).

One week later, Cheesefare Sunday will mark the discontinuation of partaking in dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—this year, March 2.

MEATFARE SUNDAY (THE LAST JUDGMENT )

On Meatfare Sunday, or the Sunday of the Last Judgment, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ (in the Gospel of Matthew) refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

Looking to cook up a delicious meat dish today?  Find recipes at Allrecipes, Southern Living and Food Network.

CHEESEFARE SUNDAY (AND FORGIVENESS)

Berry cheesecake slice with spoon

On March 1, Orthodox Christians will consume dairy for the last time until Pascha. Photo by Marco Verch, courtesy of Flickr

Great Lent commences for Eastern Christians on the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—but the faithful already are cleaning their slates today, by asking forgiveness and preparing to eliminate dairy from their diets until Pascha. (Dairy is permitted on Cheesefare Sunday, but not from the day following.) In the Orthodox church, this year, March 1 is Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday).

On the search for dairy recipes? Find recipes from Eating Well, Food Network and Dairy Goodness, a recipe collection from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Throughout Great Lent and until Pascha (Easter), Eastern Christians will fast from meat and dairy products and only consume oil and wine on occasion.

Starting on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, the Vespers of Forgiveness will signal the first liturgy of Great Lent; the service will end when attendees ask forgiveness from both fellow congregation members and the priest. If you have Orthodox friends and colleagues, this is a moving liturgy to attend, as the process of forgiveness often is deeply personal for the faithful.

Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday: Western Christians prepare for, enter Lent

Couple in Venice dressed up for Carnivale

A couple dressed up for Carnivale, Venice, 2016. Photo by Y Nakanishi

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 25 and WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 26: With Lent quickly approaching and Easter on the horizon, Western Christians enter the season of repentance on Ash Wednesday—after, of course, making any last indulgences the day before, on Fat Tuesday.

MARDI GRAS: FAT TUESDAY, PANCAKES AND PACZKIS

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 and Taste of Home.

CARNIVAL: FROM EPIPHANY TO FAT TUESDAY

Paczkis, common fare on Fat Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Epiphany—or King’s Day, on January 6— signals the official start of Carnival season. Montevideo, Uruguay, is the first city to kick off festivities for Carnival, in a celebration that lasts 40 days. In most cities, events 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.

Did you know? In the Belgian city of Binche, the Mardi Gras festival is known as the Carnival of Binche. It was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, in 2003.

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. (CNN has a slideshow of the world’s most dazzling Mardi Gras celebrations.)

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.

REPENT AND BEGIN LENT ON ASH WEDNESDAY

For Christians, Lent begins on February 26, with Ash Wednesday.

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

On Ash Wednesday, Christians recall their mortality and express sorrow for sins. 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. Generally, the practice of ashes is kept by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Anglicans.