Lent, Carnival, All Saints Day and Halloween

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Carnival in Venice
Lent (from the Old English “lencten” for spring) is an effort to relive Jesus's 40-day fast in the wilderness and is regarded as a time of penitential preparation for Easter. Catholic Lent is a period of 40 days, not including Sundays, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending at midnight on Easter Saturday. This works out to six weeks plus four days. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence. Fridays are days of abstinence.

Orthodox Lent is 50 days long. All days are days of abstinence, 43 are also fast days. Russian Orthodox observe the 48 days of Lent by not drinking alcohol or eating food that comes from animals such as meat, milk or eggs and or products that contains these things, even milk chocolate. The consumption of red wine and seafood is okay on certain dates.

Carnival is a celebration that generally runs for three days to ten days before Lent. It is viewed as the last time in which people can party and let themselves go before Lent. The word “carnival” is believed to be derived from the Latin word for “flesh farewell.” It features parades, pageants, street shows and grand balls. People often wear the masks and costumes. Mardis Gras is another name for Carnival.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks



Lent is the period of forty days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar, traditionally a time of fasting and reflection. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and begins with Ash Wednesday. Lent is an old English word meaning 'lengthen'. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer. |::|

According to the BBC: “ By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ's sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Lent is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities. Whereas Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross, Lent recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus' crucifixion by Rome. This is believed to have taken place in Roman occupied Jerusalem. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Why 40 days? 40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture: In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain. The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God. Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. |Most Christians regard Jesus' time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.

“The colour purple: Purple is the symbolic colour used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals. Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty. |::|

Both the eastern and western churches observe Lent but they count the 40 days differently. The western church excludes Sundays (which is celebrated as the day of Christ's resurrection) whereas the eastern church includes them. The churches also start Lent on different days. Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday). Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the 'Great Lent'. The last week of Lent is called Holy Week.” |::|

On Lent in the 4th Century, Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “XXVII And when the Paschal days come they are observed thus : Just as with us forty days are kept before Easter, so here eight weeks are kept before Easter. And eight weeks are kept because there is no fasting on the Lord's Days, nor on the Sabbaths, except on the one Sabbath on which the Vigil of Easter falls, in which case the fast is obligatory. With the exception then of that one day, there is never fasting on any Sabbath here throughout the year. Thus, deducting the eight Lord's Days and the seven Sabbaths (for on the one Sabbath, as I said above, the fast is obligatory) from the eight weeks, there remain forty-one fast days, which they call here Eortae, that is Quadragesimae. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

Meaning of Lent

According to the BBC: “The Christian churches that observe Lent in the 21st century (and not all do significantly) use it as a time for prayer and penance. Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although some maintain the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is more common these days for believers to surrender a particular vice such as favourite foods or smoking. Whatever the sacrifice it is a reflection of Jesus' deprivation in the wilderness and a test of self-discipline. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “As Lent arrives each year, the most common question posed to Christians is: “What are you giving up?” To a large extent, Lent does include sacrifice — abstaining from certain foods, gossip, laziness and the like — but the sacrifice is not for its own sake. It reminds us that we can exercise self-control and that Jesus underwent tremendous physical sacrifices during his Passion. It also spurs us to charity. One of the original goals of cutting back on consumption, after all, was to save money to give to the poor. [Source: James Martin, Washington Post, April 18, 2014. Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” |~|]

“James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “But overall, Lent is about spiritual preparation; sacrifice is simply a means to that end. Often I ask people not, “What are you giving up for Lent?” But, “What are you doing for Lent?” Are you being kind? Loving? Forgiving? These activities, which move us beyond sacrifice, prepare believers to welcome Christ into their lives in a new way. That’s why one of the phrases in the Lenten prayers in the Mass speaks about the “joy” of Lent.” |~|

Shrove Tuesday

Carnival in Venice, Masked Lovers
Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday), is the day before Lent, it is time of partying and feasting before Lent starts. Although many scholars have argued that Carnival has it origins in ancient pagan festivals or the ancient Roman Isis festival, Spanish scholar Julio Caro Baroja argues that it evolved as a pure Christian festival because there is no record of it ever existing without being associated with Lent.

According to the BBC: “Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It's a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday is sometimes called Pancake Day after the fried batter recipe traditionally eaten on this day. But there's more to Shrove Tuesday than pigging out on pancakes or taking part in a public pancake race. The pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deeply religious roots. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution for them. When a person receives absolution for their sins, they are forgiven for them and released from the guilt and pain that they have caused them. In the Catholic or Orthodox context, the absolution is pronounced by a priest. |::|

“This tradition is very old. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the 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. |::|

Shrove Tuesday Celebrations

Carnival in Sante Fe, Argentina

According to the BBC: “Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence, because it's the last day before Lent. Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent. Giving up foods: but not wasting them 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. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

“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. |::|

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is the First Day of Lent. Lent starts of Wednesday because penance is not performed on Sunday. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice, performed mainly by Catholics, of burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and putting the ashes on one’s forehead as reminder that “man is but dust” when faced with God and a reminder to do penance. The fourth Sunday of Lent, called “Laetar” , is time to take a break from penance and enjoy life a little before resuming Lent and preparing for Easter.

According to the BBC: “Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It's a day of penitence to clean the soul before the Lent fast. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

Lent penitence by Bruegel

“Ash Wednesday services draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting. In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic. |“God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality. — Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer |::|

“The minister or priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return, or a similar phrase based on God's sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19. The modern practice in Roman Catholic churches nowadays is for the priest to dip his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, say: Remember, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return (or a variation on those words). |::|

“At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world. At other churches the service ends with the ashes being washed off as a sign that the participants have been cleansed of their sins. |::|

“The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that: 1) Death comes to everyone; 2) They should be sad for their sins; 3) They must change themselves for the better; 4) God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes; 5)

The shape of the mark and the words used are symbolic in other ways: 1) The cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism; 2) The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin; 3) The cross of ashes may symbolise the way Christ's sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin replaces the Old Testament tradition of making burnt offerings to atone for sin; 4) Where the ashes come from |::|

“The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday. Ashes can also be bought from Church suppliers. A bag of ashes big enough for 1000 people costs around £8. The ash is sometimes mixed with anointing oil, which makes sure that the ashes make a good mark. The use of anointing oil also reminds the churchgoer of God's blessings and of the anointing that took place at their baptism.

Mothering Sunday

“Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent. Nowadays, Mothering Sunday is a day when children give presents, flowers, and home-made cards to their mothers. According to the BBC: Although it's often called Mothers' Day it has no connection with the American festival of that name. Traditionally, it was a day when children, mainly daughters, who had gone to work as domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother and family. Today it is a day when children give presents, flowers, and home-made cards to their mothers. [Source: BBC, July 5, 2011 |::|]

“Most Sundays in the year churchgoers in England worship at their nearest parish or 'daughter church'. Centuries ago it was considered important for people to return to their home or 'mother' church once a year. So each year in the middle of Lent, everyone would visit their 'mother' church - the main church or cathedral of the area. Inevitably the return to the 'mother' church became an occasion for family reunions when children who were working away returned home. (It was quite common in those days for children to leave home for work once they were ten years old.) |::|

All Saints Day in Poland

All Saints' Day

All Saints' Day is a feast day celebrated on 1st November. All Souls' Day, 2nd November, is a time to pray for departed souls. All Saint’s Day honors all the saints. It a joyous occasion that anticipates the joy we will feel during our own salvation. All Soul’s Day, on November 2, also known as the Day of the Dead, honors all the dead. It has traditionally been marked with visits to family graves. It was founded by Saint Odilon, Abbot of Cluny, at the beginning of the 6th century. According to the BBC: “All Saints' Day (also known as All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas) is the day after All Hallows' Eve (Hallowe'en). It is a feast day celebrated on 1st November by Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. As part of this day of obligation, believers are required to attend church and try not to do any servile work. [Source: October 20, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Remembering saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD, but it wasn't until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV decided to remember all martyrs. Originally 13th May was designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs. Later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to remember all the saints, changed its name to Feast of All Saints and changed the date to 1st November. |::|

“We celebrate today the solemnity of All Saints. This invites us to turn our gaze to the immense multitude of those who have already reached the blessed land, and points us on the path that will lead us to that destination. — Pope John Paul II, All Saints' Day 2003 |::|

All Souls' Day

According to the BBC: “All Souls' Day is marked on 2nd November (or the 3rd if the 2nd is a Sunday), directly following All Saints' Day, and is an opportunity for Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholic churches to commemorate the faithful departed. They remember and pray for the souls of people who are in Purgatory - the place (or state) in which those who have died atone for their less grave sins before being granted the vision of God in Heaven (called Beatific vision). [Source: October 20, 2011, BBC |::|]

All Soul's Day in Germany

“Reasoning behind this stems from the notion that when a soul leaves the body, it is not entirely cleansed from venial (minor) sins. However, through the power of prayer and self-denial, the faithful left on earth may be able to help these souls gain the Beatific Vision they seek, bringing the soul eternal sublime happiness. |::|

“A 7/8th century AD prayer The Office of the Dead is read out in churches on All Souls' Day. Other rituals include the offering of Requiem Mass for the dead, visiting family graves and reflecting on lost loved ones. In Mexico, on el dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead), people take picnics to their family graves and leave food out for their dead relatives. |::|

“Whilst praying for the dead is an ancient Christian tradition, it was Odilo, Abbot of Cluny (France) who, in 998AD, designated a specific day for remembering and praying for those in the process of purification. This started as a local feast in his monasteries and gradually spread throughout the Catholic Church towards the end of the 10th century AD. |::|

“For the souls in purgatory, waiting for eternal happiness and for meeting the Beloved is a source of suffering, because of the punishment due to sin which separates them from God. But there is also the certitude that once the time of purification is over, the souls will go to meet the One it desires. — Letter of Pope John Paul II for Millennium of All Souls' Day |::|

All Hallows' Eve

“All Hallows' Eve falls on 31st October each year, and is the day before All Hallows Day, also known as All Saints' Day. According to the BBC: “The Church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows' Eve when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself. The name derives from the Old English 'hallowed' meaning holy or sanctified and is now usually contracted to the more familiar word Hallowe'en. [Source: October 20, 2011, BBC |::|]

“In the early 7th century Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, formerly a temple to all the gods, as a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, and ordered that that date, 13th May, should be celebrated every year. It became All Saints' Day, a day to honour all the saints, and later, at the behest of Pope Urban IV (d. 1264), a day specially to honour those saints who didn't have a festival day of their own. |::|

“In the 8th century, on 1st November, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel to all the saints in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Gregory IV then made the festival universal throughout the Church, and 1st November has subsequently become All Saints' Day for the western Church. The Orthodox Church celebrates All Saints' Day on the first Sunday after Passover - a date closer to the original 13th May. |::|

Halloween and Samhain

All Hallow's Eve

According to the BBC: “It is widely believed that many Hallowe'en traditions have evolved from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain which was Christianised by the early Church. Pronounced sow-in, Samhain is a Gaelic word meaning 'end of the summer'. This festival is believed to have been a celebration of the end of the harvest, and a time of preparation for the coming winter. |::|

“It is widely accepted that the early church missionaries chose to hold a festival at this time of year in order to absorb existing native Pagan practices into Christianity, thereby smoothing the conversion process. A letter Pope Gregory I sent to Bishop Mellitus in the 6th century, in which he suggested that existing places of non-Christian worship be adopted and consecrated to serve a Christian purpose, is often provided as supporting evidence of this method of acculturation. (See related links.) |::|

“Encyclopaedia Britannica states that this date may have been chosen "in an effort to supplant the Pagan holiday with a Christian observance". The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions also claims that Hallowe'en "absorbed and adopted the Celtic new year festival, the eve and day of Samhain". However, there are supporters of the view that Hallowe'en, as the eve of All Saints' Day, originated entirely independently of Samhain and some question the existence of a specific pan-Celtic religious festival which took place on 31st October/1st November. |::|

“In his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers states: Festivals commemorating the saints as opposed to the original Christian martyrs appear to have been observed by 800. In England and Germany, this celebration took place on 1st November. In Ireland, it was commemorated on 20th April, a chronology that contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain. [Source: Nicholas Rogers, “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night”]

“Steve Roud, author of A Pocket Guide To Superstitions Of The British Isles, says: Certainly the festival of Samhain, meaning Summer's End, was by far the most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar, and there was a sense that this was the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen, but however strong the evidence in Ireland, in Wales it was 1st May and New Year which took precedence, in Scotland there is hardly any mention of it until much later, and in Anglo-Saxon England even less. [Source: Steve Roud, A Pocket Guide To Superstitions Of The British Isles]

Samhain carved turnip

“In Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Ronald Hutton says: Heavy Irish immigration into the Scottish Highlands and Isles in the early Middle Ages carried the name Samhain there, in local variations, but to the Welsh the day was 'Calan Gaeaf', 'the first day of winter', and the night before was termed 'Nos Galan Gaea', winter's eve'. Perhaps significantly, the earliest Welsh literature attributes no arcane significance to these dates (in sharp contrast to May Eve) and describes no gatherings then (in sharp contrast to New Year). It must be concluded, therefore, that the medieval records furnish no evidence that 1st November was a major pan-Celtic festival, and none of religious ceremonies, even where it was observed. An Anglo-Saxon counterpart is difficult either to prove or to dismiss completely. [Source: Ronal Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain]

Halloween is more Christian than Pagan

According to a LifeWay Poll, 51 percent of evangelical Christians either avoid Halloween completely (28 percent) or avoid the “pagan elements” (23 percent). Beth Allison Barr wrote in the Washington Post, As a historian, I find this poll disappointing. Not because I think everyone should participate in Halloween (I don’t really care that much), but because the very wording of the poll — “When you consider the pagan elements of Halloween, which is closer to your attitude?” — conveys that Halloween is still mostly regarded as a non-Christian holiday. [Source: Beth Allison Barr, Washington Post, October 28, 2016. Barr is associate professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Baylor University’s history department. This was first published on Patheos’ Anxious Bench blog]

“Yes, Halloween has similarities with (possibly accretions from) Samhain, the Celtic end-of-summer celebration. But that does not make it a pagan holiday. As historian Nicholas Rogers, author of “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night” (Oxford University Press, 2002), puts it: “If Samhain imparted to Halloween a supernatural charge and an intrinsic liminality, it did not offer much in the way of actual ritual practices, save in its fire rites. Most of these developed in conjunction with the medieval holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ day.”

“Indeed, most of the traditions we associate with Halloween are medieval or early modern in their origin — not “pagan.” First, we know that festivals commemorating saints (All Hallows Eve) existed in Europe by 800. We also know that these festivals were not created to supplant previously-existing pagan rituals. The Irish world (which provides the origin of the Celtic feast Samhain) celebrated a feast for saints in April while the Germanic world (which did not recognize Samhain) celebrated in November.

“What does this tell us? It tells us that the actual chronology of Halloween “contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain” (Rogers). In fact, John Mirk’s Festial (the most popular orthodox sermon compilation in late medieval England) actually explains how “All Hallows Eve” came about. Pope Boniface IV converted the Roman Pantheon into a Christian church dedicated to saints and martyrs during the 7th century. This day was then commemorated as All Saints’ Day. While Mirk’s story does tell about the Christian appropriation of a pagan temple, his narrative is firmly situated in a Christian event (the dedication of a new church) far removed from the Celtic world of Samhain. From this medieval perspective, “Halloween” is a celebration of Christian triumph over paganism, rather than a pagan holiday masquerading as Christian.

“Second, in the words of historian Ronald Hutton, we have “no idea” about what actually happened during the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Despite what you may have read from Pat Robertson’s website or from James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” (a classic social anthropology study from 1890 that explores the parallels between Christianity and ancient mythology), we have very little evidence about the actual practices of Celtic people or their festivals.

“Nicholas Rogers argues that James Frazer’s description of Samhain in “The Golden Bough” anachronistically projected medieval traditions onto the past (as Rogers writes, “there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship”). In fact, scholars really aren’t sure what “Celtic” culture entails. Some are even questioning the reality of the “Celts” as a coherent people group. Let me say it again: we have very little evidence about the actual festivals of the people we know as Celts.

Christian-friendly Halloween candy

“It is the medieval Christian festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’ that provide our firmest foundation for Halloween. From emphasizing dead souls (both good and evil), to decorating skeletons, lighting candles for processions, building bonfires to ward off evil spirits, organizing community feasts, and even encouraging carnival practices like costumes, the medieval and early modern traditions of “Hallowtide” fit well with our modern holiday. So what does this all mean? It means that when we celebrate Halloween, we are definitely participating in a tradition with deep historical roots. But, while those roots are firmly situated in the medieval Christian past, their historical connection to “paganism” is rather more tenuous.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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