Goodbye to tasty treats as Lent begins

Feast or famine: Detail from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Breughel the Elder.

Is giving things up a good idea? Today is the start of Lent, when Christians traditionally deprive themselves of something they enjoy. But the practice is common to other religions too.

It was Shrove Tuesday, and the woman making pancakes in her medieval kitchen had lost track of the time. Suddenly, she heard the church bells start to ring. “Help!” she thought. “I’m going to be late for the service!” And she rushed out of the house in such a panic that she forgot to take off her apron – and put down her frying pan.

This, according to tradition, is how pancake races started. The reason the woman was making pancakes was that for the 40 days of Lent, food such as eggs were forbidden, so they needed to be used up before it started.

For Christians, cutting down on enjoyable food is a commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. St Francis is said to have spent the whole of Lent alone on an island in an Italian lake, living on half a loaf of bread.

Though many Christians now just give up one thing, such as alcohol, some – particularly in India and Pakistan – adhere to the ancient “Black Fast”, which forbids meat and dairy products and allows only one meal a day, eaten after sunset. In this, it strongly resembles the Muslim festival of Ramadan.

Such asceticism is important to other religions too. Hindus fast on certain days of the week and month, and during festivals such as Navaratri. The Buddha fasted so rigorously that he said, “My ribs stuck out like the rafters of an old hut,” before deciding on a more moderate form.

Jainism includes the idea of “santhara” (fasting to death) and around 200 followers are believed to end their lives in this way each year. Although it is intended only for those who are near death anyway, it is the subject of legal controversy in India where some regard it as attempted suicide.

In Judaism, self-denial can go beyond fasting: during Yom Kippur, it is forbidden even to brush your teeth. Extremely observant Jews refrain from using electrical devices, including TVs and computers, on the Sabbath.

The 21st-Century equivalent of a religion, some would argue, is wellness – and many of its practitioners advocate self-deprivation. The popular 5:2 diet is based on intermittent fasting, with five days of normal eating followed by two days restricted to just 500 calories.

Is giving things up a good idea?

Chewing it over

Some say that giving things up restores the natural balance in a world where many rich consumer societies enjoy massive excess. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were used to feast or famine: if they killed a wild animal, they quickly ate it all. If food was scarce, they made do with little or nothing. And if we want to make life on the planet sustainable, we all need to cut back.

Others argue that it is not particularly healthy or scientific to live a yo-yo existence. The people who live longest have regular habits: they get up and go to bed at the same time every day, following the body’s natural rhythms, and have their meals at a set time, eating neither too much nor too little. They also stick to the same basic foods year in and year out.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be given a normal helping of your favourite food every day, or an enormous helping every other day?
  2. Is there any real point in fasting?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have to give up something you enjoy for each day of Lent. Write a list of the 40 things you would choose.
  2. Imagine that you are St Francis at the end of his 40 days on the island. Write a one-page diary entry describing your experience.

Some People Say...

“Just as the first condition of a good life is self-control, so the first condition of a life of self-control is fasting.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Russian novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Fasting has long been associated with spiritual health. The first mention of Lent as a period of abstinence in preparation for Easter dates from a conference of Christian leaders in 325, but it had already been practised for centuries. All world religions recommend abstinence as a way of overcoming the body’s cravings and focusing the mind on higher things. Many advocates of wellness believe that periods of fasting or eating very little have physical benefits.
What do we not know?
How the idea that fasting was good for you, rather than something that simply had to be endured when times were hard, first developed. We don’t know if we’d all be healthier if we had an irregular diet, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, or whether our eating should follow a strict pattern.

Word Watch

Shrove Tuesday
The day before the beginning of Lent. To “shrive” yourself means to confess your sins, as people were supposed to do on that day.
St Francis
An Italian born in around 1182, who gave up his wealth as a young man to become a monk. He inspired many followers and was known for his love of nature.
Ramadan
The ninth month of the Islamic year, during which Muslims are required to fast from dawn until dusk.
Navaratri
An autumn festival whose name means “nine nights”, celebrating the victory of good over evil.
Buddha
The founder of Buddhism. Born Gauthama Siddhartha in Nepal in around 563BC, he left his princely family to seek wisdom.
Jainism
An Indian religion which emphasises respect for all living creatures.
Yom Kippur
A festival which comes nine days after the Jewish New Year. The name translates as “Day of Atonement”.
Hunter-gatherer
Someone who lives by hunting wild animals and collecting wild plants.

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