“Humanity is never so beautiful as when praying for forgiveness, or else forgiving another.” - Jean P.F Richter
Lent is the period of fasting before Easter, in commemoration of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert. Interestingly, the 40-day period is one that recurs in the Bible: Moses spent 40 days on Mt Sinai, Elijah spent 40 days travelling to the Mount of God. In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic faith), Sundays are not included in the period of fasting and the fast begins on Ash Wednesday. In the Greek Orthodox faith, the period of Lenten fasting begins on “Clean Monday” (which this year is today), and continues until midnight on Easter Saturday, a period of 48 days. The Greek term for Lent is Meghale Saracosté, meaning the “great 40th day”, fast being implied, and the “great” including the extra 8 days of fasting. The “lesser 40th day fast” of the Greek Orthodox Church is the one preceding Christmas and lasts 40 days.
It was traditional for children to cut out a paper figure of an old lady with seven feet showing beneath her long skirt. This figure was dubbed “Mrs Lent”. She had no mouth as she was fasting, her hands are crossed in an attitude of prayer and contrition and she has 7 feet, one for each week of the Great Lent. As Lent progressed, one of the feet was cut off on the Saturday, the last one on Holy Saturday before Easter. In the days before calendars, Mrs Lent was an easy way to keep track of the progress of the fasting and the advent of Easter.
The term “Clean Monday” also refers to the Spring-cleaning, which was traditionally done on this day. Everything was taken out of the house, furniture dusted, floors mopped, walls were whitewashed, houses aired, and the rubbish taken out of the village and burnt. This represented a purification of the house, readying it for the Lenten period ahead. In Greece, Clean Monday is a time when children go out and fly kites, a practice known as koúlouma, which usually combines this kite-flying with a picnic in the countryside. It is customary to eat a special unleavened bread on this day, called a laghána. The baking of this special bread may be related to the Roman Feast of Ovens, the Fornacalia at around this time. During this feast, it was customary to eat wheaten flat cakes resembling the laghána. The Fornacalia cakes may also be linked to the tradition of baking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
The Great Apokriá is gone and o’er
Masquerading, feasting, alas no more.
Lent is here, Clean Monday dear -
Eat your olives and great God fear!
Greek Folk Rhyme
The term Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lenctene, meaning the time when days lengthen. The Scottish term for Lent is “Fasterns” while the Gaelic and Welsh terms also allude to the period of fasting. In Latin the term carnesprivium is given to Lent and means “the time of abstinence from meat”. Before the fast, all foods forbidden during Lent had to be consumed and generally this was a time for merry-making and feasting. Carnival is derived from the Latin carnelevarium, meaning “taking away of meat”. Other sources link carnival with carnevale, literally, “goodbye to meat”. No eggs, milk, cheese, meat or fish are partaken during the period of fasting, a largely vegetarian diet being followed. The Roman Catholic faith has relaxed the requirements of Lenten fasting whereas the Greek Orthodox church still applies the same stringent requirements to the faithful.
Shrovetide is the period just before Lent when people made their “shrifts”, or they were “shriven” i.e. made their confessions. Lent is a period of meditation, fasting, doing penance, preparing spiritually for Easter and giving money to charity. No weddings should be performed during Lent, couples usually waiting until Easter Sunday, a very popular day to celebrate a wedding in many countries. Traditionally, the 40-day period of Lent was also a time that new candidates for admission into the Christian faith prepared for their baptism, which occurred on Easter Sunday.
Marry in Lent,
Marry in Lent,
You’ll live to repent.
In England, Shrove Monday is also called Collop Monday, meaning the day on which the meat forbidden during Lent had to be consumed in the form of “collops” or “rashers”. Mutton collops or bacon collops were eaten on this day together with eggs. Merry making and the playing of practical jokes was also a custom on the Shrovetide days. Carnival as such was not celebrated in England.
Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, is a German pre-Lenten tradition. On this day, friends exchange a single white rose, this explaining the name of the holiday. Rosenmontag is included in the week prior to Lent when Carnival is celebrated with parades, processions and masquerades. The Sunday before Rosenmontag and Shrove Tuesday are termed the “Three Mad Days” as this is when the carnival reaches its zenith. The main carnival procession is held on Rosenmontag (Shrove Monday) and the processions of Mainz and Cologne are by far the most famous and grand. In Cologne, the parade stretches for up to 7 km and is watched by 1.5 million people. The leading float is occupied by the Prince of the Carnival and following this are other floats, many coaches, dancers, giant dummies depicting well-known personalities in caricature. Brass bands follow on with riders on richly-caparisoned horses, costumed figures, clowns and girls who throw chocolates, carnations and mimosa blossom (flown in from the South of France) into the crowd.