As I write it is the day before Christmas Eve. As you read we are approaching, or even in, February with Christmas and all its festivities well and truly behind us. But, just as we looked forward to Christmas, now we look forward to Easter. On 14 February we celebrate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the day before being Shrove Tuesday. So, what are the origins of these days with rather odd sounding names?
Let us begin with Ash Wednesday and work backwards. Essentially, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent which marks forty days before Easter. However, the mathematically minded amongst you may realise that if you count the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday it comes to more than forty! This is because when we count the days in this period we exclude Sundays. Lent is a time of penance and fasting which is why some people give up something for Lent. This is normally something which is not easy to do, in order to make us feel penitential. The name Ash Wednesday is derived from the fact that at some church services on this day people have the sign of the cross marked on their forehead in ash as a symbol of death and penance. This ash is produced by burning the palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday.
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday and is sometimes called Pancake Day. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person would confess their sins, be forgiven for them and be released from any guilt and pain that has been caused. Because Lent is a time of abstinence when we might give things up, Shrove Tuesday is the last chance in which we might get the opportunity to indulge ourselves, and to use up the foods that some Christians (historically and today) would not eat in Lent (such as meat, fats, fish, eggs etc.). In order that no food would be wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that would not 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.
So, as we approach the season of Lent let us remember that what it leads to is Easter, the greatest and most significant of the church festivals.
With best wishes to you all.
Licensed Lay Minister and Churchwarden