What do ashes, no meat on Fridays, 40 days and Mardi Gras have in common? They’re all symbols associated with the Church season known as Lent—the 40 days preceding the Holy Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
Why 40 days? Well, throughout the Bible there are references to events taking place over 40 days or years, such as the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert or Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert. In the biblical sense, “Forty days is another way of saying ‘long enough’ or ‘enough time,'” according to The Lent, Triduum and Easter Answer Book, by Paul J. Niemann.
We begin those 40 days on Ash Wednesday when we receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of mourning and penitence. The importance of this tradition is to remind us that we are entering a period of prayer and spiritual renewal, fasting and almsgiving.
One Last Celebration
The day before Ash Wednesday, February 12 this year, many people will celebrate the “feast before the fast” with Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), as we know it today, actually comes from the tradition called Shrovetide. Shrovetide was the final celebration before Lent. During Lent, people would typically wear dark clothing, abstain from meat and rich foods, and avoid celebrations. Therefore, Shrove Tuesday—the day before Lent—provided people with an opportunity to engage in one last celebration, wear colorful costumes and decorations, and use up the rich foods in their homes.
Today, Mardi Gras celebrations have become rather popular and family-oriented in places such as New Orleans, where schoolchildren even get the day off. Some of the events associated with Mardi Gras may be rather raucous, but the basic meaning of the celebration remains.
According to Programs for Lent and Easter, by Elizabeth Wright Gale, the name Shrove comes from the word shrive, which means to confess. In many parts of the world, Shrove Tuesday is still referred to as Pancake Day. In an attempt to use up rich foods, people feast on items such as pancakes, sausages, bacon or other scraps of meat.
Another tradition of Mardi Gras is the King Cake, a circular-shaped pastry decorated with icing and colored sugar. The colors of the sugar—which are also the colors of Mardi Gras—are purple, green and gold. The colors, in order, signify justice, faith and power.
A small plastic baby is inserted inside the cake. Whoever gets the baby in his or her piece is said to have good luck for the next year—and must also supply next year’s cake!
Celebrating the Symbols of Lent
With its wonderful traditions and symbols, Lent provides a perfect opportunity for your family to celebrate together. Here are some suggestions for making the most of Lent:
As a family, observe the practice of not eating meat on Friday. Remember that the purpose of this tradition is to make a sacrifice. If one of your family’s favorite meals is meatless, you might consider an additional sacrifice. Meatless Fridays are now also seen as a sign of solidarity with the hungry multitudes worldwide.
Attend a penance service and go to Confession. Lent is the Church’s primary penitential season. Most parishes offer penance services during the Lenten season. Check with your parish for times.
In addition to abstaining from meat on Fridays, do some abstaining from the television or other types of media, such as the computer or video-game system. Use the time to do activities together as a family, such as taking a walk or playing a game.
Put some extra effort into your decision as to what your Lenten sacrifice will be this year. And remember that doing something can be just as good as giving something up. Last year my focus for Lent was to contact people—by phone, mail or in person—whom I had meant to stay in contact with but hadn’t. Each week I focused on a different person.
Make your family a King Cake for Mardi Gras.
The Internet has lots of different recipes for King Cakes ranging from the official New Orleans King Cake recipe to the less time-consuming and labor-intensive versions. Make sure to take the time to read the story of the history and symbolism of the tradition. To locate this information, type “King Cake” into your favorite search engine. You can also order premade King Cakes at many bakeries or on the Internet.
For Teens: Cooking Up a Good Time
Offer to cook your family dinner on Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day. You can also incorporate some of the more current Mardi Gras customs by decorating the table with beads and other colorful items.
Since the next day is the beginning of Lent, perhaps after dinner you can ask family members to share their plan for Lenten sacrifice. Letting each other know what your sacrifice will be offers an opportunity for encouragement to stay true to that sacrifice throughout the next 40 days. Respect the fact, however, that some family members—yourself included—may not be comfortable sharing their sacrifice.
For Kids: Finding Signs of Life
When I was growing up, my strongest connection with Lent was that it was the time of year that I had to give something up. As I grew older, however, I realized that, while sacrificing something you enjoy is one option, it’s not the only one. For instance, one year I decided that, instead of giving something up, I would do what my parents asked of me without complaining or arguing. Believe me, that was much harder than giving up candy!
This year, take some time to think about your Lenten sacrifice. Talk with your parents or other adults about why we even practice this custom—as a reminder of God’s great sacrifice for us.
Whatever you decide will be your Lenten sacrifice, draw a picture and post it on the refrigerator where everyone can see—and help you honor your commitment. For instance, if you’re giving up watching a certain television program, draw a picture of one of the characters. Or, if you’re going to make an effort to play more with your brother or sister, draw a picture of the two of you playing together.