What do ashes, no meat on Fridays, 40 days and Mardi Gras
have in common? They're all symbols associated with the Church
season known as Lentthe 40 days preceding the Holy Triduum:
Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
Why 40 days? Well, throughout the Bible there are references
to events taking place over 40 days or years, such as the
Israelites' 40 years in the desert or Jesus' 40 days of fasting
and prayer in the desert. In the biblical sense, "Forty days
is another way of saying 'long enough' or 'enough time,'"
according to The Lent, Triduum and Easter Answer Book,
by Paul J. Niemann.
We begin those 40 days on Ash Wednesday when we receive ashes
on our foreheads as a sign of mourning and penitence. The
importance of this tradition is to remind us that we are entering
a period of prayer and spiritual renewal, fasting and almsgiving.
The day before Ash Wednesday, February 12 this year, many
people will celebrate the "feast before the fast" with Mardi
Gras. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday"), as we know it
today, actually comes from the tradition called Shrovetide.
Shrovetide was the final celebration before Lent. During Lent,
people would typically wear dark clothing, abstain from meat
and rich foods, and avoid celebrations. Therefore, Shrove
Tuesdaythe day before Lentprovided people with
an opportunity to engage in one last celebration, wear colorful
costumes and decorations, and use up the rich foods in their
Today, Mardi Gras celebrations have become rather popular
and family-oriented in places such as New Orleans, where schoolchildren
even get the day off. Some of the events associated with Mardi
Gras may be rather raucous, but the basic meaning of the celebration
According to Programs for Lent and Easter, by Elizabeth
Wright Gale, the name Shrove comes from the word shrive,
which means to confess.
In many parts of the world, Shrove Tuesday is still referred
to as Pancake Day. In an attempt to use up rich foods, people
feast on items such as pancakes, sausages, bacon or other
scraps of meat.
Another tradition of Mardi Gras is the King Cake, a circular-shaped
pastry decorated with icing and colored sugar. The colors
of the sugarwhich are also the colors of Mardi Grasare
purple, green and gold. The colors, in order, signify justice,
faith and power.
A small plastic baby is inserted inside the cake. Whoever
gets the baby in his or her piece is said to have good luck
for the next yearand must also supply next year's cake!
the Symbols of Lent
With its wonderful traditions and symbols, Lent provides
a perfect opportunity for your family to celebrate together.
Here are some suggestions for making the most of Lent:
- As a family, observe the practice of not eating meat
on Friday. Remember that the purpose of this tradition is
to make a sacrifice. If one of your family's favorite meals
is meatless, you might consider an additional sacrifice.
Meatless Fridays are now also seen as a sign of solidarity
with the hungry multitudes worldwide.
- Attend a penance service and go to Confession. Lent is
the Church's primary penitential season. Most parishes offer
penance services during the Lenten season. Check with your
parish for times.
- In addition to abstaining from meat on Fridays, do some
abstaining from the television or other types of media,
such as the computer or video-game system. Use the time
to do activities together as a family, such as taking a
walk or playing a game.
- Put some extra effort into your decision as to what your
Lenten sacrifice will be this year. And remember that doing
something can be just as good as giving something up. Last
year my focus for Lent was to contact peopleby phone,
mail or in personwhom I had meant to stay in contact
with but hadn't. Each week I focused on a different person.
- Make your family a King Cake for Mardi Gras. The Internet
has lots of different recipes for King Cakes ranging from
the official New Orleans King Cake recipe to the less time-consuming
and labor-intensive versions. Make sure to take the time
to read the story of the history and symbolism of the tradition.
To locate this information, type "King Cake" into your favorite
search engine. You can also order premade King Cakes at
many bakeries or on the Internet.
Next Month: Alleluia! Christ Is Risen
Teens: Cooking Up a Good Time
Offer to cook your family dinner on Shrove Tuesday, Pancake
Day. You can also incorporate some of the more current Mardi
Gras customs by decorating the table with beads and other
Since the next day is the beginning of Lent, perhaps after
dinner you can ask family members to share their plan for
Lenten sacrifice. Letting each other know what your sacrifice
will be offers an opportunity for encouragement to stay true
to that sacrifice throughout the next 40 days. Respect the
fact, however, that some family membersyourself includedmay
not be comfortable sharing their sacrifice.
Kids: Finding Signs of Life
When I was growing up, my strongest connection with Lent
was that it was the time of year that I had to give something
up. As I grew older, however, I realized that, while sacrificing
something you enjoy is one option, it's not the only one.
For instance, one year I decided that, instead of giving something
up, I would do what my parents asked of me without complaining
or arguing. Believe me, that was much harder than giving up
This year, take some time to think about your Lenten sacrifice.
Talk with your parents or other adults about why we even practice
this customas a reminder of God's great sacrifice for
Whatever you decide will be your Lenten sacrifice, draw a
picture and post it on the refrigerator where everyone can
seeand help you honor your commitment. For instance,
if you're giving up watching a certain television program,
draw a picture of one of the characters. Or, if you're going
to make an effort to play more with your brother or sister,
draw a picture of the two of you playing together.