Feasts, fasts and a Pancake Day warning

Having a ball: Partiers take to the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

It’s that time again: a day of indulgence before the fast. But how long can the tradition last in this secular age when every day in rich countries is a feast? And is it worth fighting for?

Today, six weeks before Easter Sunday, celebrations break out across the world. In the UK, drooling families tuck into stacks of pancakes. Carnival fever grips Mediterranean cities. The citizens of New Orleans take to the streets in masks and costumes as the Mardi Gras parade unfolds.

What is the meaning of all these festivities? The historical answer is clear enough: they are a last gasp of extravagance before Lent sets in, which runs up to Easter. In Christian tradition Lent commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, and people mark it by cutting down on food or certain luxuries.

Today is the day before Lent begins. Known as Shrove Tuesday (shriven which means absolved from sins gives us shrove) or Pancake Day in some countries, including the UK, it is supposed to be a chance to have some fun before the fast. Now is the time to use up supplies of dairy and eggs, which are forbidden during Lent – hence the pancakes.

This year, as ever, people are donning their costumes or taking out their frying pans. And, as ever, some are lamenting that the original meaning of Shrove Tuesday has been lost amid all the fun and games. Our societies are not as religious as they were; fasting for Lent is not an obligation anymore, and so we no longer ‘earn’ our party on the day before.

It is the same with Christmas: every year, sceptics bemoan the commercialisation of the holiday, arguing that the stress of having to buy presents runs counter to the festive spirit of joy and harmony. So too at Halloween: what used to be a festival of solemn respect for the dead has become a superficial celebration of all things ‘creepy’.

Which brings us back to the original question. In this secular age, what is the meaning of festivals that have their basis in religious tradition? Do they still have a place in our society?

Losing our religion

These festivals do more harm than good, say some. They used to be rooted in material necessity and religious conviction. Stripped of this significance, they have just become excuses for self-indulgence. The result? People get anxious at Christmas, eat too much on Shrove Tuesday, and hardly bother with Lent anymore. We should either be truer to their original purpose, or ditch them.

What killjoys, comes the reply. We love mass celebrations – it’s human nature. And they are more important than ever. As our lives get busier and lonelier, we need the occasional pretext to get together with the people we love. Besides, people invest these old festivals with new meanings: see how Australians have turned Mardi Gras into a celebration of LGBT culture. These festivals are flexible institutions – let them be.

You Decide

  1. If you had to give something up for Lent, what would it be? Why?
  2. Is materialism bad?


  1. Imagine you have been invited to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Design a costume to wear. (For ideas, look up photos of the carnival.)
  2. Pick a religious festival – it does not have to be Christian. Design a lesson plan to teach the meaning of the festival to the class (and make sure that it’s fun as well as educational!).

Some People Say...

“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.”

Calvin Coolidge

What do you think?

Q & A

I believe in a different god. Why should I care about any of this?
Every religion has its traditions. Some resemble Christian customs: in Islam, the pious fast during Ramadan, and in Japan’s Shinto faith, people honour the dead with lanterns during the Obon Festival. Many of these traditions are very ancient, and every religion faces the question of whether it should adapt its practices to suit the times.
I’m not a Christian, but I want to do Lent. Can I?
Of course. You don’t have to fast or pray: every year, many non-Christians just choose to give up one or two things for 40 days, such as meat or computer games. Traditionally, Lent is also about giving to the poor, so another way to commemorate it is by helping someone in need or giving to charity.

Word Watch

Mardi Gras
The name for Shrove Tuesday in some places, such as New Orleans in the USA, where a huge carnival is held on this day. ‘Mardi Gras’ is French for ‘fat Tuesday’ – a reference to the tradition of eating greasy food.
Fasting in the desert
According to the Gospels, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Judaean Desert. The Devil tried to tempt him, but he resisted. Traditionally, the purpose of Lent is to rid oneself of sin by praying, fasting and giving to the needy.
Lent begins
The first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday.
Hence the pancakes
That may not be the whole story. Many Christian customs were influenced by older pagan traditions. According to one theory, Shrove Tuesday stems from an ancient Slavic festival, on which people helped the god of springtime defeat the spirits of darkness. Pancakes were eaten, as their shape and heat represented the sun – a symbol of spring. (See Become An Expert.)
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Every year, around 70,000 people in costume parade through Sydney to raise awareness of LGBT rights and celebrate their sexuality.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.