Tomorrow, Tuesday February 8th is Mardi Gras, the festivity that marks the final day of the Carnival Season in the Catholic church, which traditionally runs from the Epiphany to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The Carnival Season was originally an amalgam of pagan celebrations appropriated and adapted by the church state and celebrated by the hoi polloi and is characterized by excess; excess consumption of food, alcohol, parties and parades.
Participants in the revelry wore-and still wear- masks, originally so they could raise hell in public and mock the church and aristocracy with impunity, and the masquerade balls and parades are still a major part of the celebrations in Carnivals over the world, most noticeable in the Carnivals of Venice, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. The fact that you could run amok on this day and get away with it Scott-free is also reflected in another moniker for this day, Shrove Tuesday; “shriving” means confessing one’s sins and gaining absolution, so you have one last bash before lent, shrive, and enter that season guilt free.
Mardi Gras is literally, “Fat Tuesday,” in English, referring to the feasts aplenty of meat and fat (think foie gras) that proliferate before the imminent famine of abstinence: the next day, Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day period of willful denial and fasting that ends at Easter. Furthermore, since rich foods were about to be forbidden for the next six weeks or so, people had to eat as much of it as they could so it wouldn’t go to waste.
“During Lent there are many foods that some Christians – historically and today – would not eat: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn’t 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.”–bbc.co.uk
Many of us also know this day simply as “Pancake Tuesday,” because we load up on pancakes that day. Another reason for this stems from the ancient pagan Slavic traditions of spring which were being molded to fit Christian orthodoxy.
“Before the Christian era, the Slavs believed that the change of seasons was a struggle between Jarilo, the god of vegetation, fertility and springtime, and the evil spirits of cold and darkness. People believed that they had to help Jarilo fight against winter and bring in the spring. The most important part of Maslenitsa week (the whole celebration of the arrival of spring lasted one week) was making and eating pancakes. The hot, round pancakes symbolized the sun. The Slavs believed that by eating pancakes, they got the power, light and warmth of the sun. The first pancake was usually put on a window for the spirits of the ancestors. On the last day of Maslenitsa week some pancakes and other food were burnt in a bonfire as a sacrifice to the pagan gods. -slavicsouvenirs
It’s always kind of fun knowing the history and backstories behind the mosaic of our many cultures and traditions, and keeping them alive makes us participants in the experience and pays homage to those that came before us. So tomorrow, how about making a big whack of pancakes for the family. Maybe get up a little earlier and get the kids involved; here’s a super simple recipe for basic pancakes that should do the trick.
And if you don’t have the get up and go, maybe head to your favourite diner and order a short stack for yourself, like these beauties served up at Rose and Sons Swan, made with red fife flour and served with crème fraiche, stewed blueberries, and of course, maple syrup. Jarilo would be happy.