Mardi Gras we know, but what’s Lent all about?

By Yvette Walker

On this Mardi Gras, translated from the French as “fat Tuesday,” I’m surprised so many folks don’t understand the traditions of Lent. As a Catholic growing up in Chicago at St. Dorothy’s church, I practiced Lent regularly with my family. I no longer attend Catholic church — I now go to an Evangelical church and occasionally to an Episcopalian church — but I still practice those ancient and rich traditions of Lent.

And those traditions mainly include food – what you can and can’t have. For many people, Lent is a tradition of making a sacrifice as we lead up to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But these days I want to begin adding to my season and not taking away.

But first, what is Lent? Here are some resources that explain Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Lent:

From Catholic Online: Lent begins on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, and ends on April 16, 2022. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. This year, it takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting.

Christianity.com says, “Often called the Day of Ashes, Ash Wednesday starts Lent by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession. This happens during a special Ash Wednesday service. … the priest or pastor will dip his finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and from dust you will return.”

The day before Lent begins is called Mardi Gras. Back to Catholic Online: “In France, the people feasted on foods that would be given up during the forty days of Lent. Meats, eggs, and milk were finished off in one day, giving the holiday its French title of ‘Mardi Gras’ which means Fat Tuesday.”

A rich history of foods

Two foods are connected with Mardi Gras in America: King Cake and the polish paczki (pronounced punchkee”).

King Cake is probably better well known. Neworleans.com says the name “king cake” comes from the Biblical story of the three kings who brought gifts to the infant Jesus. “A blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll, king cake is usually iced in yellow, green, and purple – the colors of Mardi Gras — and is frequently packed with fruit fillings and decadent cream cheeses. Hidden within these season sweets also lie a special surprise: a plastic king cake baby to continue the fun.”

The online magazine Eater Detroit colorfully describes the fill doughnutlike paczki as heavenly fried pastries. They give some background, too :

“Paczki is a Polish word meaning package. Traditionally paczki are made before the Catholic Lent holiday in preparation for Easter. Families were to use all of their sweets and butters before the religious holiday; so paczki were created.”

Back in Chicago, we’d eat paczki rather than king cake, but both are great. And we’d fill up on this day knowing of the 40 days of sacrifice ahead. As a girl, it was a solemn season.

Can there be more?

But writer Ann Swindell writes of the season, “Lent seeks to hush our ravenous appetite for ease and excess and, instead, remind us that the way of Christ is neither of those things. The way of Christ is the way down—down from heaven, down to the dust of the earth and the pain of a cross. It is the way of truth.”

That is such a beautiful way to describe what some people think of as a season of withdrawal or relinquishing something we love.

It’s true, I remember Lent for giving up something, but also for experiencing something rare. In my house, we ate certain foods that we didn’t eat other times of the year. In my Catholic parish, meatless Fridays were the rule during Lent. I don’t eat fish as a rule, so Daddy as the primary cook in our home, had to figure out a menu that I would eat.

Fridays in the Walker household consisted of a few options, mainly because it’s what I would tolerate.

Menu 1: Salmon Croquettes with meatless spaghetti (See recipe.)

Menu 2: Tuna noodle casserole (See recipe.)

As much as I don’t like fish, these childhood favorites bring back mouth-watering smells for me!

Thinking of Lent as a season of reflection AND sacrifice is a great way to honor what Jesus did for us. It’s not and should not be a season of torture to be worn on your face.

Jesus tells us in Matthew chapter 6, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

Lent is a beautiful season and a time to reflect on our faith and relationship with God. Treat it as such.

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Mardi Gras we know, but what’s Lent all about?

  1. Thank you for the background and history on Lent. I go to church but in my denomination, Lent is not highly recognized and the fasting before Easter is not referred to as Lent. I’m parcipating in Lent this year to bring me closer to God and for other reasons. Thanks again and God bless.

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