Fat Tuesday

The Battle of Carnival and Lent

Today marks the last day of Fasching (Germany/Austria) and Carnival (France, elsewhere), if you follow the Western Church’s calendar. Feasting and merriment are about to come to an abrupt end, as Christians are enjoined by tradition to renounce certain pleasures, or to take on new devotions and duties, in spiritual preparation before the great feast of Easter.* In Europe this was a time to eat up the last of the meat and butter and other fats.

It was also making a virtue of what in far too many years was a necessity. This is the lean time in the northern hemisphere, when the stocks from the fall are starting to run short, and the spring growth and egg-laying and milk-producing have not started. Winter is not over. So fasting spread out the pain of short rations by giving them a spiritual foundation, and it pushed those who did have more food to not flaunt it. Granted, people flaunted in other ways. There’s dried salt cod, and then there’s smoked salmon. You can guess what the rich wanted.

The painting shows the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent, in an allegory. The central figures of Carnival, on his barrel and using a roasting spit as a spear, challenges Lent, who is armed only with two small fish, probably herring since Breughel was from the Low Countries.

Another version of the battle, in gresaille.

16th century — by Workshop of Pieter Bruegel the Elder — Image by © Burstein Collection/CORBIS

The central figures from the main painting.

This was a relatively popular subject, and many copies of Bruegel’s painting were made during his lifetime, by his studio. If you look at the upper right of the main painting, to the right of the house with the yellow-white facade, you will see a religious procession entering the square, warning that Lent has begun and that the time for feasting and merriment has passed.

The boys are spinning tops just below the procession.

But that is for tomorrow. Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day to enjoy the last of the butter and eggs, to indulge in pancakes and other rich foods, and to partake of the good things in life, because lean days are ahead.

Too often it seems to me that we ignore “Shrove Tuesdays” or are strongly encouraged to ignore them, because various causes and issue-groups feel that we should live in perpetual penance, doing all we can to make up for the sin of having been born in a wonderful world in this time in history. How dare we savor a doughnut and a lovely sunrise when some of our ancestors might have oppressed someone on a different continent a hundred years ago and more? Why are we still living in heated houses and driving to work and to the movies (or the bookstore, or ordering books and fancy food) when we know how terrible we are just for being born? The world seems to be saying, “Drop the pancakes and get away from the butter and eggs. Salt cod is the only way to make amends for the past, now and forever.”

Fasting without any relief in sight, ever, is wearing on the body and on the soul. How much perpetual guilt can a man live with before his mind and spirit break? There are times when fasting is appropriate for body and for the spirit, fasting from food but also fasting from certain behaviors and thought patterns. But to live in an eternal fast, with no Easter waiting at the end, no reason to hope for a new beginning and a feast of joy and light?

So enjoy Shrove Tuesday. In moderation, please. And pass the butter, if you don’t mind. And the good maple syrup, the dark stuff. Thank you.

*How many clergy are looking at the date for Easter (April 1), thinking about the church youth at the sunrise service or Easter egg hunt, and starting to worry?

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14 thoughts on “Fat Tuesday

  1. It’s interesting to note that the word “shrove” is a simple past tense of “shrive”, meaning “1. to impose penance on (a sinner); 2. to grant absolution to (a penitent); 3. to hear the confession of (a person).” I wonder if there isn’t a sense that “Shrove Tuesday” is the last day to commit sins for which one will be “shriven” during Lent?

  2. One of the many things I learned in time spent in the Middle East is that the words “ten” and “forty” don’t mean what we think. “Ten” is the Semitic language family term for “a week” or “several”. “Forty” is their term for “a month” or “many”. The numbers in the bible aren’t precise or literal in their original meaning, because the languages are different. Every single man I met there said he had “ten” children with each wife. It’s a bit like Discworld’s troll counting system of “one, two, some, many, lots.”

    “Forty days and forty nights” simply means “a long time, about a month.”

  3. Traditions long forgotten… Or I should say the origin is long forgotten. Good reminder! And the dark Maple syrup is the cheep stuff, the lighter the better quality.

  4. And then there are the supporting? derivative? holidays such as Altweiber Fest, the Thursday before Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. I lost more than one uniform to Altweiber (“Old Women) bearing glitter bombs. For several years I was on a NATO base in Germany where the military population was represented by the contributing members’ $$ input, so 40% of the military positions were American, 40% were German, and the remaining 20% divided among nine other nationalities. With that many Germans and being in Germany, there was a definite Teutonic spin to the holiday schedule and festivities.

    On Altweiber Fest Donnerstag the German ladies, young and old, joined by quite a few other nationalities, fortified by various schnapps, would go nuts on base, running around cutting men’s ties and dousing us with glitter, and even face paint on occasion. I would make sure to wear my oldest/most worn uniform that day because I knew it was unlikely to survive. Something about the texture of the material used in the Air Force trousers and flight cap absolutely refused to release all the glitter no matter how hard I tried to clean it or brush it out. This generally ended with a big drinking session at the all ranks club.

    It was fun but I am not sure of the what the religious connection might be.

    • German Fasching also has a sense of overturning order, and thus the attacks on authority like the (in)famous political and social floats in Cologne and Mainz. In the Rhineland, a Feast of Fools begins Fasching, and fools can and do speak the truth that those in power don’t want to hear and do not want heard.

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