Much of the traditional Christian calendar seems to have been subjected to the Marie Kondo treatment, and we are all the poorer for it. The mini-Lent, or pre-Lent, represented by Septuagesima, Sexageisma, and Quinquagesima was scoured from the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, bringing us to a penitential season with no lead-in but Tuesday evening pancakes. The purpose of these three Sundays was to prepare the soul for the coming seasons through liturgy and prayer so that we don’t arrive there all at once, but gradually. Amy Welborn has been writing about what we’ve lost in these revisions, and found the perfect phrase–“parachuting into Lent”–in a paper by Dr. Lauren Pristas.
This was done in simple but effective ways, such as dropping the Alleluia, Gloria, and Te Deum at the Compline before Septuagesima Sunday. Sometimes a little mock coffin would be buried containing the word “alleluia” written on a piece of paper. The readings were not the routine cycle we know now, but particular scriptures to signal the coming of the season. (See here, here, and here.) The idea was to cue the mind and spirit that a change is coming. We’re human. We need these cues, now more than ever, but for some reason the liturgical vandals decided it was too hard, too complex, too … Catholic. So out it went.
We also saw the contraction of Shrovetide in the culture, or its transformation into vulgar secular displays like Mardi Gras. Make no mistake: excessive partying is not an invention of New Orleans. Drunken revelry is nothing new. For over a millennium church and secular leaders tried to reign in the extremes of pre-Lenten festivities in order to make sure people didn’t sin more while preparing to repent of their sins. In 1571 Willian Kethe complained about the “great gluttony, surfeiting, and drunkenness” of these days. But in discarding God, the revels have come unmoored from their purpose. Most people who party on Fat Tuesday don’t do so as the last blast before an ascetic period in the desert with Jesus. In modern society, it’s pretty much Fat Everyday.
The idea of Shrovetide, as most Catholics know, was to eat up the excess meat and dairy before the long period of fasting. It comes from a time when fasts were serious (as they still are in many Eastern Catholic churches) and not limited to Fridays. The days were called Shrove Sunday, Collop Monday, and Shrove Tuesday. Sometimes the previous Saturday was called “Egg Saturday” for the copious quantities of eggs consumed.
Collop Monday came from the tradition of eating the last slices and cuts of meat (collops) in the house. On Shrove Tuesday the butter and eggs were used up, usually in some kind of pancake. A 1586 text refers to “fast-even pan-puffs,” Fast-Evening being the designation of the evening before the fast begins. In many towns a “pancake bell” would be rung, sometimes as early as 9am, to remind people to prepare their pancakes, a practice recorded in England as late as the 19th century.
Shrovetide also marked the traditional beginning of certain sports and games, including football (soccer), cockfighting, shuttlecocks, rope pulls, pancake races, hurling, and marbles. Children would go a-shroving for food or money at various houses, sometimes singing for their treats:
Pit-a-pat! the pant’s hot,
I be come a-Shroving,
A bit of bread, a bit of cheese
Or a cold apple dumpling
Up with the kettle! Down with the pan!
Give me a penny and I’ll be on!
Knock, knock, the pan’s hot
And we are come a-shroving
For a piece of pancake
Or a piece of bacon
Or a piece of trickle cheese
Of your own making
If no treat was offered, the front door might well be pelted with pebbles or broken crockery.
Aside from children, the most vigorous participants in Shrovetide were apprentices, who positively ran riot in some cities. They even had a tradition of wrecking brothels, with the day described as “when mad brained prentices … o’rethrow the dense of bawdy recreation” (from Pasquils Palinodia, 1619). As late as 1954, apprentices still were taking the afternoon off in London and employers had to fight them from the taking the whole day.
Mondays and Saturdays were sometimes called “Skambling Days” in England. These were days in which no particular meals were made and members of the household had to scavenge as best they could for food. (Skambling, or scambling, means to scatter or struggle.)
The custom of the Jack o’ Lent is sometimes found in Shrovetide but also on Ash Wednesday. A dummy made of old clothing, sticks, and straws would be drawn around town on a rope, pelted with rocks or garbage, and burned or otherwise destroyed to much hooting and derision. In some areas it was left hanging throughout lent and passers by would throw things at it. The figure may have represented Judas, the devil, or even sins.
Sometimes a figure acted out the role of Jack o’ Lent, and a pantomime fight between figures representing carnival and lent would be acted out. Peter Bruegel’s vivid “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” shows the personified figures in the foreground (detail at left) tilting at each other, as all around them we see scenes representing the transition from the earthly pleasures of the world (the tavern at the left) to a more austere season of penance (the church at right).
We’re not going to recapture this world. It’s gone forever. But we can rekindle some of its traditions, even if liturgists think we’ve outgrown them. Because, you know, we really haven’t.