The Lenten season for Christians arrived today. We do not all put the ashes on our forehead of the Roman Catholic faith, but we all observe this start to the somber and sober six weeks before the death and resurrection of our Lord. Easter Sunday is the joyous triumph of Christ over death and sin for us.
As a child the time before Easter known as Lent was just a word. My best friends who were Catholic, usually gave up something for Lent and that quite often in our world was candy or sweets. We didn't come by candy all that often so it wasn't as difficult as some would think, but desserts were a part of at least two meals every day, so the technical term, "sweets", meant a much more sober dedication to following our Lord's path of suffering. I'm not sure any of us really got the sobering concept, but as Lent was usually over the long, sloppy, not-quite-spring-yet, month of March, it seemed somewhat easier to be sober and impatient at the same time. As kids we were resourceful, we could make winter go farther by ice skating and there was always the late winter snowstorm to give us additional time to use boots and sleds. March never really seemed like the windy month projected on all of our calendars in school. Here it was snow, wet, slush, and occasional thaw with a robin sighted after March blew in like a Lamb, instead of the proverbial Lion.
No, Lent was not much of an intrusion in our kid lifestyle. There was Wednesday night Lenten services and sometimes a Lenten supper, but aside from that it was just the countdown to Easter. Easter meant spring was here, even if the calendar and the weather were at odds as to when it really got to Michigan. I got an Easter bonnet and a new spring dress and shoes. My brother's got new shirts. We all waited and dreamed on our Easter baskets. Where they would be hid and the candy in them and the little gifts fit inside. While not the glorious bonanza of Christmas in terms of gifts, Easter baskets came after the long winter months and always spoke of little treats we looked forward to. New pajamas, toiletries, small stuffed animals, and little toys. Easter candy, and always our favorite kinds. Jelly beans were obligatory, and while we ate them, they were never the treats the chocolate candy was. Grandma always gave us a large chocolate bunny and often a sugar egg, huge and beautiful, wonderful to look at, but something we never thought of trying to eat.
Easter was the tide that turned into Spring. School would soon be out and we would have the long, lazy summer ahead of us. Spring meant the farmers would be out in the fields, the high school baseball teams would be out practicing and the track kids would be running down the roads. Spring meant showers that brought flowers and wonderful chances to explore our favorite places now bright and green, we were reborn, though we never thought of it that way. Our parents called it spring fever. We called it JOY.
Now, in the seeming need to make a bigger holiday out of every regional event, we had Fat Tuesday yesterday. While many would never admit it, Fat Tuesday has only come to my attention within the last decade. I knew of Mardi Gras, but it always seemed a big celebration, known only to those living in New Orleans. I had no idea that Mardi Gras was celebrated in many places in the South or that it even had anything to do with Lent. Along about the time that Mardi Gras and its flamboyant displays of overindulgence before the somber period of Lent was upon us, Paczki's became known in the North. An Eastern European, largely Polish tradition, Paczki's suddenly became big business in our area. Paczki's, (pronounced Pune-Chkee), are deep fried pastry's filled with fruit or a custard like filling, much like a jelly filled doughnut. As I have learned it was a way to use up sugar, lard and oils before the fasting of Lent began in the old country. I can honestly say, I grew up around many Polish and Slovac and Czech families and not one of them celebrated Fat Tuesday or Paczki's, but times and our penchant to overindulge have a way of rewriting history, so that the children of today think they are as much a tradition of Fat Tuesday as Easter eggs are of Easter and Christmas cookies are the Lord's birth sweet of choice.
Yesterday I watched the local news stations and the now, annual Paczki eating contest, and watched National television that featured Mardi Gras celebrations and King's cake, a dessert of the South. Many of my southern friends had never even heard of King's cake, but I am sure it will become less of a novelty and more of well known before Lent staple as regional traditions and ethnic lines are blurred. We readily share traditions across boundaries. I don't know whether that is good or not. I am growing older and like the traditions that made us uniquely who we were within the bigger framework. But I also know that there is no turning back as our country which was always known as the great melting pot is even more so.
I'll never be a Paczki fan, just not my "cup of sweet", and King's cake I don't quite understand. I understand Mardi Gras all too well, and while I may not need the release of letting it all hang out before Lent begins, I do understand the sober reflection this season now means. Our ancestors understood it in a way we miss. They understood life was often joyful and cause for celebration. They also understood, it was hard and often indescribably sad. There were no set days to be either. You worked hard and sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn't. It is little enough that we reflect on this time and what lays ahead, as a way to set our Christian compasses to true North.