Carnival is a festive season which occurs immediately before Lent; the main events are usually during February. Carnival typically involves a public celebration or parade combining some elements of a circus, masque and public street party. People often dress up or masquerade during the celebrations, which mark an overturning of daily life.
Carnival is a festival traditionally held in Roman Catholic and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox societies. Protestant areas usually do not have carnival celebrations or have modified traditions, such as the Danish Carnival or other Shrove Tuesday events. The Brazilian Carnaval is one of the best-known celebrations today, but many cities and regions worldwide celebrate with large, popular, and days-long events, such as in Laza, Verín, or Xinzo de Limia, which boasts the longest carnival in Spain.
The traditional English carnivals take place later in the year, such as the Notting Hill Carnival, an annual event which since 1966 has taken place on the streets of Notting Hill, London, UK each August, over two days. It is led by members of the Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean population, many of whom have lived in the area since the 1950s.
Lent is the period of 40 days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. Beginning on Ash Wednesday (next Wednesday February 17th), Lent is a season of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Easter. By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Lent is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities.
Whereas Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross, Lent recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus’ crucifixion by Rome. This is believed to have taken place in Roman occupied Jerusalem.
The Christian churches that observe Lent in the 21st century (and not all do significantly) use it as a time for prayer and penance. Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although some maintain the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is more common these days for believers to surrender a particular vice such as favourite foods or smoking. Whatever the sacrifice it is a reflection of Jesus’ deprivation in the wilderness and a test of self-discipline.
Why 40 days?
40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture:
- In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain.
- The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.
- Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.
- Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.
Most Christians regard Jesus’ time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.
Why is it called Lent?
Lent is an old English word meaning ‘lengthen’. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer.
The colour purple
Purple is the symbolic colour used in throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals.
Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.
(Tuesday February 16th)
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins.
The word shrove is the past tense of the English verb shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of confession and doing penance
Shrove Tuesday is sometimes called Pancake Day after the fried batter recipe traditionally eaten on this day.
But there’s more to Shrove Tuesday than pigging out on pancakes or taking part in a public pancake race. The pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deeply religious roots.
When a person receives absolution for their sins, they are forgiven for them and released from the guilt and pain that they have caused them.
Shrove Tuesday celebrations
Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence, because it’s the last day before Lent.
Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren’t allowed in Lent.
Giving up foods: but not wasting them
During Lent there are many foods that some Christians – historically and today – would not eat: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods.
So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn’t last the forty days of Lent without going off.
The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras (‘fat Tuesday’). Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour.
The origin of pancake racing
Pancake races are thought to have begun in 1445. A woman had lost track of the time on Shrove Tuesday, and was busy cooking pancakes in her kitchen.
Suddenly she heard the church bell ringing to call the faithful to church for confession. The woman raced out of her house and ran all the way to church; still holding her frying pan and wearing her apron.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It’s a day of penitence to clean the soul before the Lent fast.
Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin.
Ash Wednesday services
The service draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one’s head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting.
The mark of ashes
In Ash Wednesday churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.
The priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says “remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return”, or a similar phrase based on God’s sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19.
The modern practice in Roman Catholic churches nowadays, as the ashes are being administered, is for the priest to say something like “Turn away from sin and believe the gospel”.
Keeping the mark
At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world.
Symbolism of the ashes
The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that:
- Death comes to everyone
- They should be sad for their sins
- They must change themselves for the better
- God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes.
The shape of the mark and the words used are symbolic in other ways:
- The cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism
- The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin
- The cross of ashes may symbolise the way Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin replaces the Old Testament tradition of making burnt offerings to atone for sin
Where the ashes come from
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Ashes and oil
The ash is sometimes mixed with anointing oil, which makes sure that the ashes make a good mark. The use of anointing oil also reminds the churchgoer of God’s blessings and of the anointing that took place at their baptism.
From Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday
Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, the worshippers are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly followed triumph.
But using the ashes to mark the cross on the believer’s forehead symbolises that through Christ’s death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from sin.