Lent’s Pre-Season Warm-Up: Septuagesima, Carnival, and Fat Tuesday

The Pre-Lent season is an ancient tradition of the Catholic Church meant to help Catholics get ready for the regular penitential season of Lent.

Pieter Aertsen, “The Pancake Bakery”, 1560.
Pieter Aertsen, “The Pancake Bakery”, 1560. (photo: Public Domain)

Denver — This past Sunday, Feb. 17 marked the start of Sundays known as the “Gesimas”: Septuagesima Sunday, followed by Sexagesima Sunday, and Quinquagesima Sunday.

Septuagesima kicks off a period known as Pre-Lent, the Carnival season, or Shrovetide, which culminates in the eve of Ash Wednesday called Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras.

If all but the last of those days sounds foreign to you, you are likely not alone: they haven’t been officially a part of the Roman Rite’s ordinary liturgical calendar since the 1960s, following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

These Pre-Lent Sundays mark a period of spiritual preparation (and in some cases feasting) that is still observed within parts of the Latin Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and other Christian traditions. Pope St. Gregory the Great placed their celebration in the Roman missal around the turn of the 7th century.

Although the Gesima Sundays are still marked on calendars associated with celebrations of the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, they are officially celebrated in the liturgical and spiritual life of Ordinariate (Roman) Catholics who belong to the Latin Church's three ordinariates for Anglican patrimony, which are personal dioceses in North America, the United  Kingdom, and Oceania established by Benedict XVI under the 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. The season is marked as “Pre-Lent” on the Ordinariate Roman calendars, when the Alleluia and Gloria is no longer sung, and the vestments for Mass are changed to purple.   

“Septuagesima is still marked in the older Anglican prayer books, and is part of the Anglican patrimony preserved by Divine Worship: The Missal, used by the ordinariates,” Father James Bradley, a Catholic priest from the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in the United Kingdom, told CNA.

 

Pre-Lent Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima

Septuagesima is the ninth Sunday before Easter, or the third Sunday before Lent.  The name comes from the Latin word for seventieth, since the Sunday falls roughly within 70 days of Easter Sunday. The succeeding Sundays are also named for their distance from Easter: Sexagesima (60), Quinquagesima (50). Quadragesima Sunday (40) is officially the First Sunday of Lent.  

Septuagesima Sunday is also symbolic of the 70 years of Babylonian captivity.

“Whilst Lent mirrors the 40-year exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to freedom in the Promised Land, Septuagesima mirrors the 70 years of the Babylonian captivity. Both lead from captivity to freedom, and so also point to salvation won for us by Christ: freedom from slavery to the Promised Land of Heaven,” Father Bradley said.

For centuries in the Latin Church until the past 50 years, Septuagesima Sunday traditionally marked the beginning of some of the more somber practices that characterize the season of Lent: it was the day when the saying or singing of “Alleluia” would be suspended until Easter, and the first day that priests would wear penitential purple vestments. The last alleluias would generally have been sung after Vespers on the Saturday evening before Septuagesima.

In Ordinariate Catholic parish communities, the “goodbye” to the Alleluia takes place on the Sunday before Septuagesima, when the hymn “Alleluia, song of gladness” is traditionally sung, Father Bradley said.

“This is an English translation of an 11th century hymn, wishing ‘farewell’ to the Alleluia, which disappears from the liturgy until Easter, replaced instead by a Tract (verses typically of the Psalms sung instead of the ‘Alleluia’),” he said.  

“The idea of ‘burying the Alleluia’ for the length of these penitential seasons is taken one step further in some places, where a depiction of the Alleluia is literally buried until the chanting of the great Paschal Alleluia during the Vigil in the Holy Night of Easter,” he added.

Septuagesima was also, in the early Church, the beginning of the Lenten fast, since according to the old liturgical calendar, Thursdays and Saturdays, in addition to Sundays, were days that Christians would not fast.

“Just as Lent today begins 46 days before Easter, since Sundays are never a day of fasting, so, in the early Church, Saturdays and Thursdays were considered fast-free days. In order to fit in 40 days of fasting before Easter, therefore, the fast had to start two weeks earlier than it does today,” Catholic author Scott Richert noted in a 2018 article for ThoughtCo.

 

Farewell to meat, cheese, fun: Septuagesima-tide, Carnival, and Shrovetide  

Septuagesima Sunday traditionally kicks off a season known by various names throughout the world: Septuagesima-tide, or Carnival (typically the name for more worldly celebrations during this time), or Shrovetide (particularly in the English Church tradition). The point of the season, Bradley said, is to prepare well for Lent.

“Pope Saint Paul VI is said to have described the progressive move toward Lent in Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, like church bells that call the faithful to worship, 15, 10, and 5 minutes before Mass,” Bradley said.

“Each week in the lead-up to Lent is a nudge that the great and holy fast is around the corner, and our preparations for this should intensify.”

These days were also practical for Christians in pre-refrigeration days: they would use the pre-Lenten season to use up the rich, perishable foods such as meat and cheese that they had in their house before Lent began, and the unused foods would spoil, as Michael Foley, Catholic author and associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University, noted in a 2011 article.

Days of preparation for Lent are also found outside the Roman liturgical traditions, Bradley said.

“For example, in the East Syriac liturgy (as celebrated by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), the week before Septuagesima is marked by Moonnu Nombu, which recalls Jonah remaining three days in the belly of the whale. Moonnu Nombu is a short, three day fast, in preparation for the coming major fast of Lent.”

In Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, they even have designated “meatfare” and “cheesefare” Sundays, which focus on clearing the house of meats and dairy, respectively.

“Similarly, in Russia and other Slavic countries the week before Lent is called ‘Butter Week’; in Poland it is called ‘Fat Days,’” Foley noted. 

Carnival is the term for the more festive, wordly events associated with the pre-Lenten season, and is celebrated throughout the world with parades, parties and feasts. Still, the word itself is Catholic in origin, coming from Latin Carnem levare (carnelevarium) which means "withdrawal" or "removal" of meat, according to “The Easter Book” by Jesuit Father Francis Weiser.

The intensity of some Carnival celebrations comes from the intensity of the fasting of old, which was much more restrictive than it is today, Weiser noted.

“The intensity of this urge, however, should not be judged to stem from the mild Lenten laws of today but from the strict and harsh observance of ancient times, which makes modern man shiver at the mere knowledge of its details. No wonder the good people of past centuries felt entitled to ‘have a good time’ before they started on their awesome fast,” he said.

“Carnival music” has Spanish, Portuguese, Native American and African influences, and is typically associated with the regions of the Caribbean and Brazil, which has some of the largest Carnival celebrations in the world.

“Though it varies from country to country, Carnival music has a common origin in bidding a fond farewell to fun before the forty-day fast of Lent,” Foley noted.

 

One last chance: Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday

The last day before Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent, is called Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, depending on the country or region.

“Mardi Gras” is French for Fat Tuesday, the biggest celebrations of which in the United States take place in New Orleans, Louisiana, with parades and parties on Bourbon Street and throughout the city. 

Besides being the last day to clear the house of indulgent foods, it is also traditionally the last day to clear the soul from sin before the start of the Lenten season. According to Weiser, the name “Shrove Tuesday,” typically more common in English areas, was thus called because it was a day to be “shriven from sins.”  

The ubiquitous pancake breakfasts, most often associated with parish breakfasts sponsored by the Knights of Columbus in the United States, may also have their origins in Shrove Tuesday, as pancakes were a traditional English food served on the day to rid the house of any last sugar, butter and eggs.

Lent this year begins on March 6.

 

Register staff contributed to this report.

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