Reclaim Mardi Gras, reclaim ‘Fat Tuesday’ and prepare to get shriven

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Musicians play brass instruments during the Orpheus Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans 21 February 2012. Photo: CNS

In Australia and Britain the day preceding Ash Wednesday is popularly known as Shrove Tuesday. It is also frequently called Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday as well as by its Latin name, Mardi Gras, which when translated from the French also means “Fat Tuesday.”

But it is the name “Shrove” that shows its religious origins. Shrove is the past tense of the English verb “Shrive” which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of confession and by doing penance.

With Shrove Tuesday taking place before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, it was the day when Christians were encouraged to go to confession in preparation for the penitential season that would end 40 days and 40 nights later with Easter Sunday.

Dating back to 1000 AD, over the years Shrove Tuesday not only became a day for Confession but a time for Catholics to feast on eggs, sugar and dairy which are traditionally restricted during the Lenten fast.

Not only was Shrove Tuesday a last chance to gorge on such foods but it was also a way to use them up before the fast began.

In Britain the feast of these foods would become pancakes, hence the name Pancake Tuesday. The idea of Pancake Tuesday to celebrate the eve of the Lenten Fast gathered momentum in the Middle Ages in England with pancake races and pancake tossing, traditions which remain in certain villatges and towns to this day.

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In Germany, similar food has long been served on Shrove Tuesday and like England’s pancakes is made from eggs, sugar and cream. Germany’s Fastnacht is the traditional food of Shrove Tuesday when cakes of fried potato dough are created, covered in rich corn syrup and served up to family and friends. Fastnacht is not only the name of the cakes but gives the day its name which literally means Fast Night in English.

In Portugal the delicacy for Shrove Tuesday is Malasada. These are delicious fried doughnuts filled with a batter of eggs and milk and sprinkled with sugar.  In Poland another form of sweet rich doughnuts are traditionally eaten while in Sweden the food is Semla, a mouth-watering sweet bun made of eggs, sugar, flour and flour which is flavoured with almond paste and served with whipped cream.

Little wonder Shrove Tuesday soon earned the term Fat Tuesday or in France, Mardi Gras. As would be expected by the epicurean Gauls, not only were special cakes made to use up all the cream, eggs and sugar before Lent, but rather than just one food, the day became an excuse to gorge on a variety of French patisseries and anything else that was sweet and delicious.

Although Shrove Tuesday had been a holiday in France since the Middle Ages it wasn’t until 1699 in French-colonial New Orleans that Mardi Gras expanded from being a day for eating prior to the Lenten Fast and became an all out carnival celebrated with street dancers, parades and music.

But the idea of dressing up in outlandish costumes as part of the carnival did not eventuate until 1827 when, rumour has it, a group of students recently returned from school in Paris donned strange costumes and danced their way through New Orleans’ streets.

The students are believed to have experienced this sort of revelry while in Paris and their high jinks captured the inhabitants of New Orleans’ who joined in wearing their own wild costumes and masks.

By 1833 New Orleans Mardi Gras had become so elaborate they included a grand masked ball and by the twentieth Century was no longer limited to a party on Shrove Tuesday.

But while Shrove Tuesday remains an important day of observance for Catholics and Christians to prepare for Lent and the Lenten fast, Mardi Gras carnivals have become secular free-for-alls and have little to do with the liturgical calendar or the Christian faith.

Originally published here by Catholic Communications, Archdiocese of Sydney