Some people call today “Fat Tuesday”, an English translation of the exotic sounding French, “Mardi Gras”. In Christian tradition, this is the designated day for ridding the kitchen of all fat, maybe by frying up some pancakes, before Lent, the period of abstemious self-denial. Another nickname for today, and some days preceding, is, of course “Carnival” from the Latin/Italian words, carne levare, meaning to get rid of meat or flesh. This day is the last chance to celebrate and feast by using up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent. It's also a day of penitence, to clean the soul, before Lent begins.
It’s not surprising to see which part of this ancient sacred tradition is the current favourite, especially in New Orleans.
At some point, years ago, I learned that what I thought was a minor Canadian tradition called “Pancake Tuesday” had begun as a Christian Holy Day in medieval Europe. The oldest name for this day is “Shrove Tuesday”. To “shrive” someone, means, in old English, to listen to their acknowledgement of their selfish thoughts and actions, their pride. It includes assuring them of God's forgiveness, and giving them appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression "short shrift". To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to their excuses or problems. The longer expression is, "to give him short shrift and a long rope," which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay.
A BBC website offers this quote from one thousand years ago in a document titled Anglo Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes.
"In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him."
Even after joining an Anglican church and discovering the richness of the traditional church year with its unique seasons, I didn’t give much attention to Shrove Tuesday. Because it’s usually acknowledged in churches only with sociable pancake suppers, the spiritual focus of the season really starts for most of us the next day, Ash Wednesday.
This year is different for me. A cool website link took me to http://www.facebook.com/pages/activekidsclub.com
They suggested making a Mardi Gras Branch for Shrove Tuesday. Although this was recommended as an activity for children, I leapt at the idea.
I cut a few branches from my forsythia bush in the back yard. After arranging them in a water-filled vase, I had fun making the dull brown stalks gaudy. They now hold fuzzy purple corkscrews, ripped orange tissue paper feathers, and strings of shiny gold beads left over from a parade. I usually bring forsythia inside to enjoy the yellow blooms a couple of weeks before they blossom in the Spring, but never in February; decorating them for Shrove Tuesday is new.
My raggedy bouquet of childish, bright colours is cheering me on now from my living room mantle. It makes me smile.
Soon I’ll be substituting a more somber and restrained set of Lenten icons: a huge stone, some crosses, and the wine glass and loaf of Christ’s last supper. But for now, while eating pancakes and considering forty days of specific self-denial, my Mardi Gras Branch is a perfect symbol of life’s strange combination of grace and grief. It’s a vivid metaphor; life’s dead branches can be enlivened by adding bits of love’s beauty day by day, as best we can. Even better, after the waiting, miraculous new life will begin, with fresh green leaves and sunny yellow flowers.