Pre-Lent Catholic Culture


(This is Liam.)

Let’s talk culture for a bit, shall we?

Well, for the faithful on this side of the sanctuary rail, it was Carnival [or insert cognate term from your Catholic culture of choice – of course, in the Protestant-dominated USA, there was little Carnival culture outside Louisiana, Mobile and ethnic Catholic ghettoes (especially Polish, German, and Italian) that brought their respective Carnival traditions with them – the Irish being notably MIA in this regard, as their cultural pre-Lenten semi-pagan midwinter celebrations were deliberately euthanized (along with a lot of pre-Famine Irish cultural practices) by the Irish hierarchy in the wake of the Great Hunger in favor of sturdy Victorian bourgeois values (think Methodism in Catholic devotional drag, with none of the good music – considering the rich musical culture of the Irish, it’s rather amazing how impoverished Irish liturgical music became)].

It was probably the most schizo time of the year for the Catholic church. Within the sanctuary rail, violet replaced green (which was very noticeable), the Gloria on Sundays was suppressed (likewise), tracts replaced the gradual psalm (not the most PIPs would notice much except for the omission of Alleluia) and breviary readings took a different turn (which the overwhelming majority of the faithful would have no idea about). Outside the sanctuary rail, the faithful were fattening up for the Lenten fast, and having a helluva grand old time (again, not those Irish). The gentry and aristocracy in Old Catholic Europe threw lavish entertainments; it was the height of the “social season”. The rich areas of Catholic cities were bathed in a kind of nightime light that was rare (and very welcome in the dark-but-lengthening light of late winter, though it would seem exceedingly dim to our modern eyes accustomed to electric light in the dark) until the advent of gaslight and then electric lighting.

Of course, this was all fueled by a sense that Lent was the main event and Eastertide (the period after Easter Sunday) had become something of an afterthought. The cultural source of this trend was probably in the late Middle Ages and was accelerated by the early Modern and Industrial Age trends to cut back severely on the way the Easter holidays were once celebrated. (It’s important to remember that, until late Middle Ages, Catholics not only abstained from meatflesh but also dairy and eggs and sex during Lent – while canons kept those precepts on the books until the 20th century, in practice they were greatly diluted by promiscuous indults. Still, try to imagine what Eastertide was like before this started to unravel in the late Middle Ages….)

The point of the post-conciliar suppression was to recover the sense that Easter and Eastertide is the main event, and Lent is a period of preparation for it. I think that is very right. For those who find suddenly descending into Lent odd, it is no less odd than suddenly descending into the schizoid former season of pre-Lent (if anything, it’s easier for the lack of the schizoid quality).

The decline of Lenten fasting during the 20th century has been accompanied by a decline in pre-Lenten festivities (except in Carnivale Disneylands like New Orleans, Rio and Venice that have cultivated a modern echo in return for tourist coin). Not that anyone complaining about the suppression of pre-Lent appears to notice that.

The English term “Shrove Tuesday” is a faint echo of when people confessed their sins just *before* Lent and did their penances *during* Lent. It’s been many centuries since that practice (the actual prevalence of which cultural historians continue to debate) was anything resembling a reality. That is the one link the Roman tradition may have had to something resembling a Forgiveness Sunday of the Eastern churches.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying the the pre-Lent that survived to 1962 was a withered scrap of liturgical detritus that had long since been unconnected to the real life of most Catholics outside cathedral chapters, monasteries/convents and certain oratories where the Divine Office was cultivated with care. The weeping for its loss by latter-day traditionalists outside those contexts is one indicator that it has more shibboleth ideological value than true traditional value.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Pre-Lent Catholic Culture

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    Great post. No diary, eggs, or sex? Whoa!! And I always thought I was a person of discipline.

    By the way, Liam, I’m looking forward to your choir’s performance of the Bach St. John Passion. I’m using that work this Lent for meditation. One movement for each day of the season. Eastertide may indeed seem like a letdown.

  2. Liam says:


    Thanks. We are very much looking forward to it. The harrowing opening chorus is now starting to sound musical; maybe we have 4 weeks to get to prayer?

    That’s a nifty idea, of course, it’s interesting that the heart of the piece, No. 22, falls around Laetare Sunday in that method…

    I, like many, knew the St Matthew Passion far better than the St John. The appeal of the former is very obvious; the appeal of the latter requires more work to uncover. It’s funny that, that Bach’s St Matthew Passion has the grand theological and musical scope that one would more typically associate with the St John Passion account, while his St John Passion wrestles more like the Synoptic Passion accounts. But the key is that, for all its glory, the St Matthew Passion was for Palm Sunday, and the St John Passion was for Good Friday, and thus it is the latter that has the glorious hopeful hinge to Easter in its final chorus and chorale, balancing out the harrowing opening.

  3. Randolph Nichols says:

    Actually, one might want to keep a “diary” for Lent. “Dairy” is something else. :)

    About the Irish, wouldn’t the Boston style St. Paddy’s celebrations be an example of the decline of Lenten fasting. Talk about a cultural quirk in the calendar.

  4. Liam says:

    You mean, um, Evacuation Day? Fortunately, the RCAB’s patronal solemnity falls on Thursday this year (and skips to Saturday next year due to the bissextile day inserted). We’re in the 11-year skip of the calendrical cycle in that regard.

    And Annunciation falls on the Friday of the second week of Lent this year.

  5. richardson says:

    when you look at the similarities between the Western pre-Lent and the Eastern pre-Lent, I think you will have to consider the possibility that the ‘pre-Lent’ goes back earlier than the Middle Ages, and perhaps has a more apostolic origin than you imagine.

  6. Liam says:

    Actually, what is more striking is how different the two pre-Lents were.

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