Lenten Food Traditions Around the World

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Lenten Food Traditions Around the World

I didn’t grow up in a Roman Catholic family. My dad had spent his youth getting the crap beaten out of him by ruler-wielding Dominican nuns, and let’s just say he saw to it that our upbringing was essentially secular. Still – or maybe consequently – the more ritualistic elements of Christianity always kind of fascinated me.

Different sects calculate and observe Quadregisima, or Lent, slightly differently, but roughly speaking it’s an approximately 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. It symbolizes Jesus of Nazareth’s 40-day fasting marathon in the desert and his endurance of temptation by the Devil. Many Christians commemorate this with various acts of abstention and austerity – traditionally abstaining from eating meat, but there are many variants.

The range of rituals (and omission of rituals) that are observed during Lent is enormous, and I will barely scratch the surface here, but I think it’s worth contemplating, whether you consider yourself part of an organized faith community or not, the deeper symbolic meaning and the potential value of Lent.

Fun Facts About Lenten Traditions Around the World:

Danes’ traditional Last Hurrah before Lent is called “Fastelavn” and consists of the eating of multitudes of jam-filled pastries and children whacking a barrel full of candy. The kids who successfully break it open are declared “Cat King” and “Cat Queen.” In case you’re wondering, yes, that is because before candy, the barrel used to contain a live cat. (Mr. Schroedinger, White Courtesy Telephone, Please!) Of course, these are the folks who brought us Lutefisk and Frances McDormand’s accent in Fargo. So I guess beating a barrel with a cat in it isn’t that weird.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, the final Friday of Lent is observed by people making aguas frescas and ice cream and giving them out to passersby, in honor of the Samaritan woman who gave Jesus water on his way back to Galilee.

In Germany, Holy Thursday is known as “Green Thursday” and green foods are eaten.

Swedish children dress as witches on Holy Thursday and are given Easter Eggs and candy. Why witches? I have absolutely no idea.

Historically, in some areas of northern Europe, beaver tail was considered “fish” and therefore eligible to be eaten during the meat-eschewing period. I’m sure beavers appreciated that, as do Michigan muskrats, which can also be eaten during Lent because although they are mammals, they swim, which apparently qualifies them for fishdom during the Lenten season. While I feel this is a really uncool technicality, I will also say anyone hungry enough to be motivated to eat a muskrat should probably go on and do it.

Maltese children eat honey and almond cake and visit churches to drum on the chairs – in some cases people visit 14 different churches in a day to represent the stations of the cross. Either way, kids get to raise hell in churches, and that’s got to be pretty satisfying.


We need to be shaken out of our habits now and then – and oddly enough, traditions can be a really superb way to affect that. It seems counterintuitive in a way, doesn’t it? But I think we have holidays to emphasize that something is different than it is on the rest of the days. We reconnect with important concepts and internalize them. Lent is about internalizing – well, sacrifice is one word for it, but I don’t like the martyring overtone of that word even if the point is the commemoration of a martyr. When we act out Lent symbolically it can simply be about reminding ourselves that we have more than we need, that we are stronger than believe we are, and that we can do more with less. Whether you observe it in a highly literal and deeply Christian manner (some people in the Philippines actually crucify themselves – I don’t recommend trying this at home), or whether you take a pagan or irreligious, choose your own adventure type of attitude toward it, the Lenten season is worthy of your attention because it helps to remind you that you live a better life when you make mindful choices.

Abstinence? It can be difficult and that’s exactly why it’s rewarding. We do many things, eating perhaps in particular, mindlessly. Pushing yourself to commit to making a mindful sacrifice for a set period of time (giving up meat, giving up sugar, giving up alcohol, whatever your thing is) changes your decision-making process and that alters your neural architecture. Not to mention that after 40 days when you finally get to order that cappuccino you’ve given up for Lent – it’s the best freaking cappuccino you have ever had.

We reawaken our senses when we fast or even when we make small omissions from what we put into our mouths. Reawakening – resurrection – is the essence of this part of the year whether or not you associate it with the Jesus of the New Testament. It’s the transit from winter to spring, from austerity to abundance, from dormancy to new life, freeze to thaw, suspension to animation.

Embody that and you’re in alignment with the whole dang cosmos, not just the Catholic calendar. But, despite my Irish and Danish heritage, I am going to ask nicely that you please leave beavers alone and have a nice piece of halibut instead – and if you are whackadoo enough to put a live cat in a piñata? As they say, On Your Head Be It.

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