So you’ve celebrated Pancake Tuesday and indulged one last time before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, but what will the Irish be giving up for the next 40 days and is the Catholic tradition even still observed in modern Ireland?
Lent is a time for fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance according to the church. As part of the Christian observance before Easter known as Lent, it is traditional to give up something you’re fond of as penance. A sign of the times, in 2015 a Lent Tracker App mapped the most popular treats being avoided as chocolate, alcohol, Twitter, social networking and sweets.
That list alone shows how times have changed since as children our weekly treats of a few sweets on a Sunday would be stored up. Our only chance to break Lent was on St. Patrick’s Day when we would be allowed one treat. Nowadays Lent should really be re-named as “New Year’s Resolutions – Take Two,” when booze and sweets are skipped to curb our every expanding waistbands.
In western Christianity Ash Wednesday marks the period when Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert enduring the temptation of Satan. It derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches, from the previous Palm Sunday, and placing them on mass goers foreheads accompanied with the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
While just 20 years ago it would have been quite usual to see people with their ashes on Ash Wednesday, these days not so. According to the 2011 Census while 84 percent of Irish people, in the Republic, classed themselves as Catholic but only 18 percent indicated that they were regular Mass goers.
Another tradition of the Lenten period almost forgotten is abstaining from meat on Fridays. According to the Catholic Church's Canon Law, persons between the ages of 14 and 59 should not eat meat, on any Friday during the year, to honor the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. That’s certainly one that we’ve forgotten. However, this ritual is one that some Catholics, nowadays, take up for Lent as a challenge.
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Charity is also an excellent outcome of the Lenten period and anyone brought up in Ireland will recall the ever present Trócaire box, usually issued by schools to collect small change. The admirable tradition still continues and this money goes directly to the overseas development agency, which aids some of the world’s poorest people.
Some of the older customs remain firm favorites. While the proper observance of fasting may have fallen away hot cross buns are already lining shop shelves in Ireland. Fruity and slightly spiced these buns (with butter and jam) go down a treat with a cuppa but wouldn’t you know it based on today's behavior that traditionally these should not be eaten until Good Friday (March 25 this year).
Whether you’ve forgotten the old traditions or you’re sticking fast (excuse the pun) to Canon Law this Lent, what’s definite is that no matter where you are in the world, if you’re Irish, someone will ask you today…. “What are you giving up for Lent?” You better have your answer ready.