As I mentioned yesterday, I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show to talk with Matt Swaim about Shrovetide and its aspects of confessing and feasting: the spiritual and practical preparations for Lent. You may listen live here on the EWTN Radio network.
Here is a good source for a description of this season:
Shrove Tuesday is the last day of what traditionally was called "Shrovetide," the week preceding the beginning of Lent. The word itself, Shrovetide, is the English equivalent for "Carnival," which is derived from the Latin words carnem levare, meaning "to take away the flesh." (Note that in Germany, this period is called "Fasching," and in parts of the United States, particularly Louisiana, "Mardi Gras.") While this was seen as the last chance for merriment, and, unfortunately in some places, has resulted in excessive pleasure, Shrovetide was the time to cast off things of the flesh and to prepare spiritually for Lent.
Actually, the English term provides the best meaning for this period. "To shrive" meant to hear confessions. In the Anglo-Saxon "Ecclesiastical Institutes," recorded by Theodulphus and translated by Abbot Aelfric about AD 1000, Shrovetide was described--w as follows: "In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do in the way of penance." To highlight the point and motivate the people, special plays or masques were performed which portrayed the passion of our Lord or final judgment. Clearly, this Shrovetide preparation for Lent included the confessing of sin and the reception of absolution; as such, Lent then would become a time for penance and renewal of faith.
While this week of Shrovetide condoned the partaking of pleasures from which a person would abstain during Lent, Shrove Tuesday had a special significance in England. Pancakes were prepared and enjoyed, because in so doing a family depleted their eggs, milk, butter, and fat which were part of the Lenten fast. At this time, some areas of the Church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: "We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs." These were the fasting rules governing the Church in England; hence, the eating of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
The Latin term for this pre-Lenten period is Septuagesima (roughly seventy days before Easter). The short liturgical season of Septuagesima is still observed on the Liturgical Calendar for the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite (and is also observed in the Anglican Use for the Personal Ordinariates). For the past three Sundays, our priests at St. Anthony of Padua's Extraordinary Form community have worth purple vestments; we have not sung either the Gloria or the Alleluia. It's a time to prepare for Lent as Lent helps us prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
As Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (above), we can get carried away with the possible excesses of Carnival/Fasching/Shrovetide/Mardi Gras--we don't want to incur sins of gluttony just before the season of penitence and repentance!! Shrovetide seems to achieve the right balance: spiritually preparing for Lent with confession of sins and penance while practically getting ready for fasting and abstinence by using up what you won't be using any more from Ash Wednesday to Easter!
As they say before the great Pancake Races in Olney, England and Liberal, Kansas: On your mark, get set, GO!