Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: Christians prepare for, begin Lenten season

Mardi Gras mask sitting in pile of colorful paper ribbons

Photo by annca, courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28 and WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1: Haul out the eggs, sugar and cream, and let yourself indulge—it’s Fat Tuesday! During the last 24 hours before the start of Western Christian Lent, recipes vary by country: English families fry up pancakes, Polish and Lithuanian homes serve donuts and Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries—but all 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. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday in solemnity.

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

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.” 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.

Pile of rounded donuts covered in powdered sugar

A variety of sweet breads, ranging from paczkis to pancakes to pastries, is traditionally baked for Fat Tuesday. Photo by freestocks.org, courtesy of Flickr

PANCAKES & RACES: Gorging on 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. 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. Today 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.

MARDI GRAS and CARNIVAL 2017: Parades and festivities start gearing up days before Fat Tuesday, and Mardi Gras New Orleans offers an in-depth look at the rich history behind this American party (along with parade routes, photos, a countdown and much more). Carnival in Venice—a more formal, period-era celebration than the parties in Rio and New Orleans—is thought to have been started in 1162, and today draws approximately 3 million visitors to Venice annually. (View a slideshow of Venetian festivities, here.) 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. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although many churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader 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.

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. Lent similarly 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 2017, February 27 is Clean Monday—the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals. (Find a recipe for Lagana Bread, a traditional Greek Clean Monday favorite, here.)

Shrove Tuesday: Bring on the paczkis (and pancakes)! It’s Mardi Gras

Stack of pancakes with syrup, blueberries and cut strawberries

In England and the UK, pancakes are overwhelmingly popular on Fat Tuesday. Photo courtesy of YouTube Easy Dessert Recipes

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9: Empty those cupboards and refrigerators and indulge in sweet paczkis, delicate crepes, spongy pancakes and even a King Cake—it’s Fat Tuesday, the last day before the start of Western Christian Lent. For centuries, Christians have gathered their supply of sugar, butter, eggs and other rich foods on Fat Tuesday, cooking up an array of tempting treats and clearing the home of these foods in anticipation of Lenten fasting. In England, pancakes are topped with fruits and creams, cooking herbs and other savory flavors; in Poland and Lithuania, fried donuts and paczkis are more common. Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries, and in the United States—well, any number of these treats can be seen on Fat Tuesday.

Originally, Fat Tuesday (or, in French, Mardi Gras) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning, “to confess.” Tradition has it that Christians not only clear indulgence from their systems in a physical way on Fat Tuesday, but also clear themselves on a spiritual level, too. Confession has long been common on the day before Ash Wednesday, so that Lent may begin with a “clear plate.”

CARNE LEVARE & THE ORIGINS OF FAT TUESDAY

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.” 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.

RUN THOSE PANCAKES! In the United Kingdom, pancakes have been a part of Shrove Tuesday for so long that the day has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” One of the longest-running pancake races has been held annually since 1445, in Olney at Buckinghamshire. One legend goes that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of time, and when she heard the church bells ringing, she ran out of the house still carrying her frying pan. Today in Olney, pancake race participants must carry a frying pan and toss pancakes along the race course. Similar traditions can be spotted across England, and most races are followed by a church service.

Purple feathered mask with one eye hole showing, green, purple and gold beads and necklaces

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

CARNIVAL AND MARDI GRAS 2016

FROM NEW ORLEANS: Nothing stops Mardi Gras, say NOLA residents and partygoers, and it’s a good thing, too—because, for the third year in a row, a cold and wet forecast sets the stage for Mardi Gras activities. Nonetheless, activity schedules and much more can be found at the official New Orleans Mardi Gras website.

A GLOBAL TASTE OF FAT TUESDAY: Staying home on Mardi Gras? Not to worry—an array of recipes from around the world can bring all of the day’s tastes to your table!

Check out celebrity chef recipes, alternative pancake recipes straight from London and a tantalizing combo of crepes and homemade nutella, recipe courtesy of The Guardian. For King Cake, Jambalaya and more Mardi Gras recipes, try something from Food Network or AllRecipes. A sweet semlor bun recipe is in the Irish Examiner.

ZIKA VIRUS IN RIO: Carnivale activities worldwide begin days and even weeks before the day itself, but in Rio this year, experts estimate that thousands may have canceled their plans due to the Zika virus scare. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw what is believed to be the first international exposure to the Zika virus, and to date, more than 1 million cases of Zika virus have been reported in Brazil. Researchers are working on a vaccine, though the epidemic will put a deep dent in numbers for both Carnivale 2016 and the upcoming summer Olympic games, which are to be held in Rio.