Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Farewell to the flesh"

Today is Shrove Tuesday, and, befittingly, I am stuffed on pancakes. I was discussing this with my students this morning - it being Pancake Day, that is, not my being stuffed - and we looked at traditions in verious other countries. The Polish contingent mentioned feasting on herrings, while the Germans mentioned the carnivals in various towns, in particular the one in Cologne that begins in november and continues until today. The Italian student mentioned perhaps the grandaddy of all these public festivals, the Venice Carnival, and she mentioned the festivities, the costumes and the riot of licence that pervades it.
The word 'carnival' derives from the latin Carne Vale - literally, 'goodbye to meat', or less prosaically as I have titled this post. It is the last chance before Lent to have a blowout, a bit of a party, a bit of fun, before the forty days of fasting and penitence that is Lent. It might seem strange to have a period of abstinence just as spring is round the corner, but think about it: in European latitudes at least, and certainly for our ancestors, this is the time of year when there is dearth and lack, when food supplies are at their lowest, when there is still the long and anxious wait before crops begin to sprout forth, animals grow, things to ripen. Now, as you traipse down the aisles of Tescos, buying strawberries in the dead months, you might not automatically make this connection, but there it is. By making a virtue of starvation and lack, lent creates a sense of communality - after all, everyone is (or rather was) supposed to follow the rules about what you could and could not consume - hence the reason why all the fat in the house had to be used up before the beginning of the period.
In Islam, of course, you have Ramadan, which follows very much the same principal - a month of conscious fasting and abstinence, with people coming together for Iftar at nightfall. The main difference from Lent is that it follows the lunar calendar, so it moves forward by ten days or so each year. This means that someone will always experience the discomfort of a long, hot summer of fasting at least once during their lifetime. It doesn't have the literally visceral connection to food production and lack of the Christian tradition, but it does focus the mind on how it feels to starve like the poorest. Its message is ' here's what it's like to have no food at all', while Lent reminds us of how little we need to actually live on.
And at the end of both? A great big blowout on sweets and chocolates.
All we are asked to do is say farewell to the flesh for a brief time. And, as ever, my birthday falls right at the beginning of the period! So, as I say Vale to my forty-first year and Ave to my forty-second on this planet, I wonder what new things, what changes will happen, and what else shall come.

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