According to St Athanasius, the twentieth bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, who died in 373, Lent signified ‘becoming by grace what God is by nature’. It is a Christian Festival which re-enacts the forty days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the Devil. It is a time of self-restraint and self-discipline in which Christians are urged to follow his example. It is also a means of preparing Christians for Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, a highlight in the Christian Calendar. The Christian Festival of Lent is celebrated differently around the world.
Traditionally it was a time of strict fasting, prayer, penance, almsgiving and repentance which was only broken on Sundays. However, over the years the strict fast has become simply a time for self-reflection and the giving up of a luxury or two such as chocolate or cakes. Some people use it as a time to add something to their lives such as meditation, exercise, optimism and yoga.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with the placing of ashes in the form of the cross on the forehead. This act serves to remind Christians of their human mortality as well as to celebrate it, but it is also a sign of repentance to God. Over forty six days or six weeks Christians take part in various forms of abstinence and self-control, which I have mentioned. On Maundy Thursday, Lent ends with the commemoration of the Last supper of Jesus Christ and his Disciples. The period of Lent prepares and initiates the Easter Triduum or Paschal Triduum, which is when Christians honour the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While the purpose and celebration of Lent is basically the same throughout the Christian community there are significant differences in how various countries and cultures prepare for Lent.
The day before the beginning of Lent is called Shrove Tuesday. Shrove comes from the verb to shrive which means to obtain absolution through confession, a means of preparing for the coming season of Lent. However, today many countries choose to prepare in other ways. For example, in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Shrove Tuesday is more affectionately known as Pancake Day. Pancakes are made of rich foods such as eggs, milk and sugar, which were traditionally against the strict rules of fasting. Therefore, pancakes were a means of using up all the rich foods in a household, purging it of unnecessary temptations prior to the beginning of Lent. Today, it is more generally known as a day for slight or considerable over indulgence and for taking part in the amazing art of pancake flipping. While this is very enjoyable, Shrove Tuesday and Lent have also created events which define certain countries and their culture.
Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, another name for Shrove Tuesday. However, Mardi Gras also refers to a season of Carnival celebrations. Carnivals take place all over the world, signifying various religious and traditional festivals. Pre-Lenten Festivals occur in several countries around the world. National Geographic lists Mardi Gras in New Orleans as number one in the top ten pre-Lenten festivals. It is a defining part of New Orleans’ culture, lasting five days, beginning with a masked ball. Similarly, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is one of the most famous and extravagant of the pre-Lenten festivals. Each year it draws some two million participants and observers to the streets of Rio de Janeiro to watch parades in the city centre, the Botanic Gardens and in Ipanema, a neighbourhood in the south of Rio de Janeiro. A less commercial and smaller pre-Lenten Carnival can be found in Trinidad and Tobago. This Carnival takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent. People pour out into the streets in beautiful and colourful costumes, parading and dancing to the music of the season called Soca, essentially they create a huge street party. Yet another Pre-Lenten festival is that of Patras Carnival in Greece. Like most of the pre-Lenten carnivals it is not simply one events but a compilation of several events, including parades and kite flying competitions.
Festivals leading up to Lent also exist in Spain, Turkey, Italy, Romania, and Poland. Nonetheless there are many more which are just as beautiful, interesting and worth a visit, or at least a little Google search. With all the flare and beauty of these events leading up to Lent it is sometimes easy to lose track of their origins. The Christian season of Lent and its forty days of self-denial has inadvertently produced some of the most amazing and beautiful cultural displays in the world. Although Lent has somewhat lost its seriousness as it pertains to the strict rules on fasting and preparing for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it has had a strong influence on many countries and their cultures. Without it many nations would not have their defining element, carnival.