We are almost to my favorite season of the church year, Lent! Lent is a beautiful season of preparation in which Christians around the world ready their hearts for the most pivotal moment of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent is based on three pillars: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. During Lent, we fast from anything “of the flesh”, meaning that meat, cheese, butter, sugar, and alcohol are eliminated from our diets. It is a penitential season where we confess our sins and meditate on our need for a savior.
Right before we move into Lent, however, there is a brief period of time known as Carnival. The word Carnival comes from the Latin expression, carne levare, or “remove meat.” Carnival is filled with celebration and merrymaking as we empty our larders of all the things we cannot consume during Lent. Carnival ends with a final celebration known as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday.
Now, if you are like me when you think of this day you probably envision rich foods, elaborate parades, huge crowds, beads being thrown, and excessive partying and drunkenness. But the day is actually a transition day, moving God’s people from the season of Epiphanytide to the season of Lent. It is a day suspended between two worlds. Yes, It is a day of feasting and using up all of our fatty foods, but it is also a day of confessing our sins and preparing our hearts for the start of Lent.
Even in New Orleans where Mardi Gras has become so secularized, there are no parades after 2 pm, honoring the tradition that at sundown, a more penitential time begins. Even if you are a die-hard partier and you continue to hang out in the French Quarter to keep the party going, at midnight the party abruptly ends. There is an elaborate parade but this time it is a parade of police officers walking down the streets, forcefully announcing that the party is over followed by street sweepers that clean the streets. At the stroke of midnight, Mardi Gras is over and Lent has begun.
This special day is known by many names: Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday in French), Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday and they all point to the duality of the day. Mardi Gras and Pancake Day point to the feasting traditions associated with the day and Shrove Tuesday points to the penitential acts done on the day. The word shrove comes from the Old English word “shrift” and means to confess one’s sins. Traditionally, on this day, the church bells would ring letting the townspeople know that it was time to go to church to confess one’s sins before Lent began. They would also bring their palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday where the palms were burned and ground up to be the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service.
There are also many food traditions that developed around the world as Christians tried to use up all of the rich foods in their houses. In Mexico and Spain, they make what we call “french toast.” In France, they make King Cake. In the United Kingdom, they make pancakes. In Germany and Poland, they make doughnuts filled with jam or cream. In Ukraine, they make thin pancakes called blini.
If you’d like to celebrate this special day with your family, here’s an easy guide:
Buy some inexpensive Mardi Gras beads and let your kids decorate your home with them. They can hang them from the chandelier or off of the dining room chairs. Let your kids dress up. They can make Mardi Gras masks and wear as many Mardi Gras beads as they want! Let them have fun!
Make rich foods like pancakes, King Cake, or doughnuts. Use up all of your meats like sausage and bacon. Put out colored sugar, whipped cream, chocolate chips, syrup, or whatever you want. You are trying to create merriment and joy so let them feast and let them have fun! We are celebrating the goodness of the Lord!
Let your kids have a pancake race! In England, the tolling of the bells became known as the pancake bell because it was time to have your pancakes cooked up. In Olney, England, legend has it that a woman was so busy making pancakes for Shrove Tuesday that she lost track of time and was still flipping her pancakes when the church bells began to ring for the start of the church service. In a hurry to get to the church on time, she ran out of her house while still carrying the frying pan and flipping the pancakes. That is why England holds pancake races on Shrove Tuesday. Give your kids cool pans with already-cooked pancakes. Have them race a course as they flip their pancakes.
After you are done feasting and your kids are ready for bed, gather together and transition into a time of prayer. Explain to your children that you are now entering a new time, a time set aside to prepare our hearts for Easter. This special time is called Lent.
Explain to them that your family will mark this time by making some changes to your lives. As a family, you will be changing how you eat, you will be praying more together, reading the bible more together, and collecting alms for the poor.
Spend some time allowing them to talk about or think about what they want to give up during Lent.
Close your time by reading Isaiah 25:6-9 together.
Easy Fluffy Pancakes
3 TBL butter, melted
1 cup flour
1 TBL sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
Melt the butter. When cool, blend in the egg. In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the egg, butter and buttermilk to the dry ingredients. Whisk until smooth. Heat a griddle to medium low heat. Melt 1 tsp of butter in the griddle. Pour out batter making small circles. Flip when golden brown. Drizzle with honey or syrup. Makes 2-3 servings.