It is an obvious question, why do we eat pancakes on Pancake Tuesday?
My youngest daughter hardly could care as she shuffled off to school bright eyed and bushy tailed for a change, all she knew was if she made it to school on time, a challenge of late, she would get to eat pancakes. That is what she cared about, doughy goodness sopping up maple syrup, she was happy to eat them but could hardly care why this happens once a year.
My friend John Robson, the author and historian, likes to say that we are a culture living on fumes of the past and few times of the year prove that more than the time from Pancake Tuesday until Easter. Why do people give things up during Lent? What is with those ashes? And how did chocolate, bunnies and eggs get associated with Easter?
The answer to each question is actually not only logical but steeped in symbolism that once upon a time was meant to teach people about the holidays they were marking.
Now we just do it, shovel our faces full of pancakes and chocolate or give up coffee and get cranky with everyone around us without knowing why.
So here goes.
What is with the pancakes?
Pancake Tuesday, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras if you speak French – was once the last day for revelry and rich foods before the solemn period known as Lent. If Lent is meant as a time for Christians to fast and abstain from wordly delights as they prepare for the crucifiction and resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ then fat Tuesday was the day to whoop it up one last time.
Alright, but what does that have to do with pancakes?
To understand that you have to understand the way that Lent used to be observed. No fatty foods, no sweets, no joy. Lent is still supposed to be a solemn time for Christians but we don't empty our larders or lard anymore do we? Pancakes and other fatty foods were a way to use up the foods that would not be crossing the lips of observant Christians in the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
The fatty foods, the costumes and parties – even the drunken revelry and sexuality, Mardi Gras or Carnival in Brazil – were all ways to consume what could not be consumed, or should not have been consumed during Lent.
Ashes have long been used to symbolize a sinner attempting to repent and Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is all about repentance. Placing the ashes on the forehead was meant as an outward sign that the person wearing them was admitting they were a sinner, and aren’t we all, and trying to come closer to God.
But why is Lent so long?
Lent is 40 days right? Yes and no.
The period from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday is actually 46 days long but Lent does not include the six Sundays that fall between those two important markers. Why not? Lent is about fasting and repentance but Sundays, the day when Christians mark the resurrection of Christ should never be a solemn day but a feast day. Some Christians may argue this point but since most of what I am explaining comes from Catholicism, I am using their teachings and philosophy.
So on every day but Sundays, and some would argue important feast days – see March 17 – you are supposed to be solemn and repentant but you can break that fast on Sundays.
Why give things up?
Giving up something worldly hardly seems religious these days but it is, or can be. Early Christians were famous for giving up all their possessions and fleeing to live as hermits. We can't all do that and as St. Paul said we are to be in the world but not of it.
So we work and have houses and cars and coffee makers that too often feel neglected this time of year. So why give up coffee or chocolate, or in my case peanut butter? Because these are things we rely on as crutches and if they are something we turn to each day, then in giving them up as an offering, we will have a daily reminder to turn our thoughts to prayer rather than to our addiction to peanut butter.
All right but what the heck is with chocolate and bunnies and eggs once Lent is over?
Well let's state the obvious. If you went 40 days without sweets, like chocolate, wouldn't you want some? That explains the chocolate but not the eggs or the bunnies.
As I said, many of these symbols were chosen for teaching, either children or people with little education. What is one of the signs of new life, especially come spring? Bunnies. What is Easter about? New life. It really is that simple.
As for chocolate eggs, those eggs are hollow, empty, like Christ's tomb on Easter morning.
These are the things we don't think about anymore, we take them for granted, our culture running on the fumes of the past but the reasons for why we do certain things, like traditions are there. And no, they don't always point back to some ancient, long forgotten but now revived pagan celebration.
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