by John Q on February 15, 2004

With Christmas, post-Christmas sales and Valentine’s Day all behind us, it’s time for the next season in the annual consumption calendar, so I wasn’t surprised to see Easter Eggs on sale when I went grocery-shopping today. I do however, have a couple of questions for historically-minded readers.

First, while I know that it’s traditional to have a day of excess at Mardi Gras, followed by forty days of feasting in Lent, and then another blowout at Easter, and that this festival of consumption follows an earlier Christian tradition, I have the feeling that there has been a subtle change somewhere along the line – can anyone tell me what it is?

Second, where does the name Lent come from? Is this considered a particularly auspicious time for adding to your consumer debt, or is that just a piece of folk etymology?



Kieran Healy 02.15.04 at 2:36 am

‘Lent’ is an old Anglo-Saxon word that means the season of Spring. As in Lent term at some old universities.


Kieran Healy 02.15.04 at 2:43 am

Incidentally, Lent is also home to another very old word, shrove, as in Shrove Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras). Shrove means a good time or a party. For years I thought it was a form of shrive which means to do penance or confess your sins (it survives in the phrase short shrift), and this seemed appropriate for the beginning of Lent, when you recall your mortality on Ash Wednesday. But in fact it means almost the opposite.


James 02.15.04 at 2:44 am

Forty days of _fasting_, not feasting.

As for the “subtle change” — to make a very long story short, Lent began as a period of training for catechumens and those who were to be reconciled to the Church, and later became a general period of fasting and penitence. The blowout on Shrove Tuesday is effectively an accident — it’s not a Church festival so much as it was the last day for getting rid of foodstuffs which wouldn’t be allowed during Lent (except on Sundays. which are not fast days even in Lent).

The name is peculiar to English as applied to the period in the Church year (the Latin is “Quadragesima”, for “forty”, the French is “carême”, etc.). “Lent” is derived from “Lenten”, which refers to the Spring (and has only this vernal meaning in cognate languages) and may originally be related to lengthening days.


Ricky Vandal 02.15.04 at 3:34 am

Lent is probably the most common festival amongst ancient tribes. I know the Celts celebrated the beginning of spring, the germanics did it, but also the pre Islamic tribes in the middle east and north africa.


digamma 02.15.04 at 4:49 am

it’s not a Church festival so much as it was the last day for getting rid of foodstuffs which wouldn’t be allowed during Lent

If I understand correctly, the name “fat Tuesday” comes from the fact that you used up all your spare fat.

As for the “subtle change”, I’m not sure what Brian’s referring to.


Reimer Behrends 02.15.04 at 5:09 am

Grimm’s dictionary traces the related German word “Lenz” (a poetic word for spring) back to Anglo-Saxon “lencten” and Old High German “lengizin”. The entry suspects that it is derived from “lang” (long) and refers to the lengthening of days in spring.


bad Jim 02.15.04 at 8:46 am

Quiggin is presumably being sardonic. I thought that eggs and chocolate were traditionally off the menu during Lent, though chocolate must have been a late addition to the list of restrictions.


mikemudd 02.15.04 at 8:56 am

Following on from that, it seems the origin of Easter has both a Christian and a pagan origin.
The scholar Bede postulated that it was derived from the name of the Saxon goddess Eostre. Others say it derived from a german word for sunrise – ostern.
Others (http://jment1.com/holidays/easter/origin.html) say it “comes from the Hebrew Word ‘pesah”, or Passover ”
The celebration of death and resurrection in late spring after the equinox pre-dates Christ. Western countries with a Christian heritage take the date from the first full moon after the equinox of course. This was different again from the Jewish link to Passover (first Sunday after).
Greek Orthodox follow the julian calendar so their date is different again.
Is there a solid body of evidence that gives historical weight to when (if?) Christ’s crucifixion actually occurred? I know there isn’t for 25 December as the birth.


John Quiggin 02.15.04 at 9:19 am

Bad Jim is spot on – the substitution of “feasting” for “fasting” was intended as ironic comment, but was either too subtle or too crassly obvious.

Either way, I’m not unhappy too have been taken at face value. I’ve certainly learned a lot of interesting things.


ginger 02.15.04 at 10:39 am

Just one thing to add: what you call the mardi gras comes (at least in its European form) from the tradition of the Carnival such as that of Venice, which evolved in the Middle Ages and Renaissance from Latin festivals such as the Saturnalia. It was both to get rid of the foodstuff before Lent, and a sort of temporary anarchy when people were allowed to completely disregard the control of the Church and authorities on public life – see more here:


Michael 02.15.04 at 4:13 pm

Lente is the dutch word for spring.


Andrew Edwards 02.15.04 at 5:21 pm

Is there a solid body of evidence that gives historical weight to when (if?) Christ’s crucifixion actually occurred?

Depends whether you’re willing to accept biblical narrative as historical. The Bible is actually quite clear about the timeline, situating the crucifixion relative to passover.


some dude 02.16.04 at 4:34 am

I always heard from many a Catholic that you could take Sundays off, and booze and bloat yourself up on that day. Since you had to go to church or something, Sundays didn’t count. I passed that off as wishful thinking by a bunch of cheaters, but check it out: Lent is always considered to be 40 days (relevant to the 40 days that The J-dawg spent in the desert), but Lent lasts 47 days (or 40 days plus the Sundays). So maybe those cheaters were right after all.

Anyone got the scoop on this?


Andrew Chen 02.16.04 at 11:10 am

It’s true about Sundays. I know because here in
Milan they use the Ambrosian rite which starts Lent
seven days later and includes the weekends in Lent.
As far as I know it’s the only place in the world
where Lent starts on a different day. Is this true?


james 02.16.04 at 4:57 pm

Lent begins later in the Ambrosian Rite, but is longer in the Eastern Rite (where both Saturdays and Sundays are “off”); its beginning is sometimes earlier and sometimes later than in the West, because the way of calculating Easter is different (in the West, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, approximating the first Sunday after 14 Nisan (Passover); in the East, Easter _has_ to fall after 14 Nisan, and due to the way in which intercalation adjusts the Jewish calendar in some years this may delay Easter by a lunar month).

The reason Sundays are excepted is that they are _always_ considered to be festivals, regardless of the season. For similar reasons, All Souls’ Day (November 2), which is a privileged feria, cannot fall on a Sunday, and will be transferred to November 3 if the 2nd falls on a Sunday.

The _name_ Easter, peculiar to the Germanic languages, is derived from the name Eostre, but this was simply a transfer of a name to an already several-senturies established Christian festival. Most other languages use a derivative of “Pascha”.

Assuming that _any_ weight is to be given to the Christian scriptures at all, the original date of Easter is well-attested with relation to the Jewish calendar (there is some division over the exact day of the crucifixion, 14 Nisan or 15 Nisan, depending on the Johannine or synoptic narratives). The relation to the solar calendar is a little more complex because of the somewhat irregular manner in which the intercalation adjusting that calendar to the solar year was determined in the period.

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