Q. Wasn’t Lent much more rigorous a season in the past? And didn’t Lenten disciplines vary from country to country? And why is the day before Ash Wednesday referred to as Mardi gras?
A. The French Mardi gras literally means “Fat Tuesday.” In German, it reads, Fetter Dienstag; in Russian, Sedmica syrnaja (“Butter week”); in Polish, Tluste Dni (“Fat days”). Italians and Spanish prefer to describe Ash Wednesday in terms of the ancient Latin Carnevala from Dominica Carnevala, the Sunday before Lent (when voluntary fasting and abstinence from meat were once observed). Carnevala seems to derive from the Latin carnem (“meat”)and levare (“withdrawal”). Obviously the significance is that meat was either off the daily menu, or at least restricted, during the Lenten season. Interestingly, the Germans call Carnival time Fasching, from the verb vasen, meaning “to run around crazily.”
All of the above facts can be found in Father Francis X. Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace; 1952), a fascinating, authoritative source.
The word Mardi gras or “Fat Tuesday,” provides insight into once severe Lenten practices. In anticipation of rigid fasting and abstinence, Christians simply desired to feast and party prior to beginning another long Lent.
Another reason for celebrating “Fat Tuesday,” suggests Father Weiser, was quite practical: foods like eggs, cheese, butter, even milk, were generally not permissible during Lent. At times they were not even to be kept in the home. In addition, meat was largely restricted all during Lent. By today’s standards, the Lenten observance centuries ago was quite stark.
Again, however, some of the pre-Lenten celebrations attempted to “compensate” for the discipline of the Lenten pilgrimage. This was even true in Rome itself, where one of the Popes, Paul II, chose to regulate the festivities. He was the Pope who in 1471 introduced both the popular races and the carnival pageants. Father Weiser makes reference to other similar efforts to “regulate” the festivities, such as “the parade of gondolas” in Venice, and gala balls in Vienna. (In Latin America, there are parades with floats; and in Philadelphia, the famous Mummers’ parade.)
The English “Lent” apparently reflects the Anglo-Saxon Lengten-tide, signifying “springtime,” when the days begin to lengthen after a dark winter. In Latin nations (e.g., Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish, etc.), the basic name for “Lent” is derived from the Latin Quadragesima, meaning a period of 40 days. Germans use Fastenzeit (“fasting-time”).
Fasting and abstinence date from most ancient times in the Church. For example, St. Athanasius, the great Patriarch of Alexandria (373) wrote that the “whole world” observed the Lenten Fast for 40 days.