Today is Ash Wednesday. Since the seventh century it has marked the start of Lent. The first day of Lent has been called Ash Wednesday since 1099. Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that refers to the lengthening of days and the coming of spring.
Lent is a fast of 40 days (not including Sundays) that runs from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter). Originally the fast was just from Good Friday to Easter. During the third and fourth century a 40 day fast was adopted.
This fast meant not eating certain foods (generally dairy, meat and fat), only drinking water, and only eating one meal later in the day. Over 1000 years the time of this meal slid from late in the day to not eating anything until the None hour (the ninth hour of the Roman day which corresponds to 3 pm), to not eating anything until noon. (The Roman ninth hour is the origin of the word noon). With the Reformation some Protestants gave up Lenten fasting and others did not. Many Christians now observe some form of fasting or giving up a particular food during Lent.
The imposition of ashes as a sign of penance is a custom that is referred to in the Old Testament. It was officially adopted by Christians in the fourth century, although there are written references to it from before then.
In the middle ages people who were undergoing penance would not attend church after Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday). In the meantime they would undertake fasting and wear coarse sackcloth clothing. They would stay at a monastery or similar place and pray and perform manual labor and works of charity.
Originally imposition of ashes was only for those undergoing the penance described above. By 1100 it was possible for faithful Christians who were not undergoing penance to just receive the imposition of ashes. With the Reformation most Protestant churches did away with the imposition of ashes. Starting in the 20th century many Protestant churches revived the custom of the imposition of ashes for Ash Wednesday.
Today is Shrove Tuesday. It marks the culmination of the carnival season. The carnival season is generally the week before Lent. The word carnival is similar to the word carnivore. Carnival refers to the festive period before Lent begins and meat can no longer be consumed. Now the definition of carnival is broader and can refer to just a general festive gathering with games and amusements.
Mardi Gras takes place on Shrove Tuesday. Although there are many Mardi Gras parades leading up to Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is French for fat Tuesday and refers to the practice of using up fat in cooking to make a feast.
Shrove Tuesday is followed by Ash Wednesday which marks the start of Lent. Lent is often marked with fasting or abstaining from certain foods. Pancakes are a traditional food to eat on Shrove Tuesday. There are many ethnic varieties of pancakes that are very rich and high in fat in the recipe. Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day.
The name Shrove Tuesday refers to being shriven or confessing sins. Lent used to be a penitential period where people would wear sackcloth clothing, fast, and do penance for their sins. These aspects have moderated in recent times compared to a couple hundred years ago. Although for many people Lent is a time of much prayer and reflection.
Shrovetide refers to the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Everyone is aware of Shrove Tuesday and the custom of eating pancakes on that day. Far fewer people are aware of Collop Monday. Traditionally the Monday before the start of Lent is the last day that eggs and bacon can be eaten. (Two foods that would go nice with pancakes on Tuesday). Collop refers to frying meat. Both Collop Monday and Shrove Tuesday are part of the festive season that comes before the austere Lent.
The time leading up to Lent is also known as carnival season. Carnival has the same word origin as the word carnivore. Both words relate to meat. Carnivore refers to meat-eaters. Carnival refers to the giving up of meat for Lent. Much like Mardi Gras celebrates the giving up of fat for Lent, carnival celebrates the giving up of meat for Lent.
Mardi Gras is also known as Shrove Tuesday. The name Shrove Tuesday comes from the tradition that Lent was a penitential period. (Particularly in the middle ages and before the industrial revolution). Many people would attend confession and be “shriven”. Shriven –> Shrove.
The custom of eating pancakes (or similar food) on Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” arose out of the need to use up foods like butter that were generally not consumed during a Lenten fast. While the word fast often conjures up the image of going totally without food what the fast entailed often varied from region to region. Rather than total abstinence from food it was often not eating certain foods like dairy or meat and a general reduction in calories consumed. Nowadays fasting is less common and often involves giving up a single food such as soft drinks or chocolate rather than larger scale limitations.
February 28th is Shrove Tuesday and marks the day before the start of Lent. Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras. The most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. takes places in New Orleans, Louisiana.