In 2016, Shrove Tuesday is on February 9 and Ash Wednesday on February 10.
Epiphany gospel readings – Year C
Before going into the ancient history behind Shrovetide, let’s look at what denominations following the Church calendar currently call the season of Epiphany.
Churches following the three-year Lectionary readings are using those for Year C until the first Sunday in Advent, when Year A readings begin.
The Lectionary readings for the Sundays after Epiphany normally focus on Jesus’s divinity and ministry. In 2014, I excerpted an excellent explanation of the Epiphany season from St Paul’s Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) of Kingsville, Maryland. The church has since taken the page down, but my post has the salient points, among them (emphases mine):
… the church concentrates on several of the other incidents from Scripture that show how Jesus manifested God’s love to the world through His ministry of preaching, miracles, and healings. What is common to each of these epiphanies is that in one way or another they make known the identity and mission of Jesus Christ: True Man and True God, born into this sinful world to be the Lord and Savior of all humanity.
This year, Sunday gospel readings included Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), His first creative miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11), His preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth when they wanted to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:14-21, Luke 4:21-30) and the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)). Be sure to read the missing and optional verses!
Before the post-Vatican II liturgical changes occurred in the Catholic Church and before similar adjustments occurred in Anglican and Lutheran churches, these denominations observed what was called Shrovetide.
Shrovetide begins on Septuagesima Sunday and comprises Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday (commonly called Shrove Sunday). My post, ‘The Sundays before Lent’ explains what each of these ancient names mean and what they signified in terms of spiritual disciplines. In brief, they mark the days before Easter: 70, 60 and 50, respectively. Centuries ago, some Christians began Lenten fasting the day after Septuagesima Sunday.
The word ‘shrove’ is the past tense of ‘shrive‘, an archaic verb meaning:
Present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.
Christians were supposed to go to confession during this time, a customary practice before Lent began. In England, Abbot Aelfric instituted this practice in 1000 AD.
Even into the 20th century, people took Shrovetide seriously. In the 1960s, I knew a Catholic lady who explained that these Sundays were meant to exercise the consciences of the faithful, get them to focus on their sinfulness and decide on the appropriate spiritual disciplines they would need to undertake during Lent.
Of course, by then, Carnival, where celebrated, is in full swing. In some countries, it lasts for a week. In others, it starts on the final weekend of Shrovetide. In both cases, the festivities climax and end on Shrove Tuesday.
According to Wikipedia, Carnival was an ancient pagan time of revelry. Certainly, early Church councils and synods attempted to curb the excesses which took place at this time. Wikipedia tells us:
Many synods and councils attempted to set things “right”. The statements of Caesarius of Arles (470–542), which protested around 500 CE in his sermons against the Pagan practices, seemed to have formed the building blocks of the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (small index of superstitious and pagan practices), which was drafted by the Synod of Leptines in 742 in which the Spurcalibus en februario was condemned.
Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) decided that fasting would start on Ash Wednesday.
He did this in order to draw a clear line of demarcation between Carnival and Lent.
My post ‘Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ’ has more on Carnival, including the origin of the word which:
derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘farewell, meat [literally, ‘flesh’]’. In England, the word valete is still used occasionally in formal academic announcements (parodied in the satirical magazine Private Eye); valete is the plural of vale and is used when bidding farewell to more than one person or thing.
Centuries ago, as Lent approached, flour from the previous year was near its expiry date, so to speak. Similarly, eggs, milk and meat fat (e.g. lard) would also have to be eaten or discarded before the fast. No household threw out food. Therefore, the European custom prior to Lent was to use up these foodstuffs.
Centuries ago, the British called this day Collop Monday. Collop means sliced or minced meat. It was a final opportunity to eat meat prior to Lent. The meal was often a breakfast, in which eggs also featured. If bacon was used, the cook or housewife reserved the fat for the pancakes served the following day.
Nearly all European countries mark Shrove Tuesday with a special food item or fat-laden feast, a final opportunity for enjoyment before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
These customs are centuries old and spread to other countries around the world with European exploration and settlement.
The Reformation could not put paid to old pre-Lenten customs which live on today. The British and many Commonwealth nations still call Shrove Tuesday Pancake Day. In Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe, people enjoy semla, a sweet bun filled with frangipane and topped with whipped cream. People in Iceland celebrate Bursting Day by eating salted meat and peas.
Many countries celebrate Carnival or hold other ancient festivities on Shrove Tuesday.
In Britain, a number of towns in Britain hold pancake races, which date back to the 15th century:
The tradition is said to have originated in 1445 when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it to prevent it from burning. The pancake race remains a relatively common festive tradition in the UK, especially England, even today. Participants with frying pans race through the streets tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running.
The most famous pancake race, at Olney in Buckinghamshire, has been held since 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, carry a frying pan and race over a 415-yard course to the finishing line. The rules are strict: contestants have to toss their pancake at both the start and the finish, as well as wear an apron and a scarf. Traditionally, when men want to participate, they must dress up as a housewife (usually an apron and a bandanna). The race is followed by a church service.
Another popular Shrove Tuesday tradition in England was the local football match. This has died out over the centuries, and the Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Derbyshire appears to be the sole survivor.
Yet, in the 12th century, a cleric, William Fitzstephen, wrote about a football match he witnessed in London. By the late Middle Ages, other towns and cities around Britain also held Shrovetide ball games. The types of games varied by region and tradition.
The match has specific rules and takes place not on a pitch but all over town:
The ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people.
Shops board up their windows and people park away from Ashbourne’s main thoroughfares.
The match gained royal assent in 1928 when the future Edward VIII (the abdicator!) attended. In 2003, it was given royal assent a second time when Prince Charles opened the match.
It is fascinating to discover how ancient, widespread, varied and enduring these pre-Lenten traditions are.
This history provides food for thought on how our ancestors might have spent the days preceding Lent.