Ash Wednesday

February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday, by Carl Spitzweg, ca. 1855

Don’t tell your co-worker he has dirt on his face; he’s been told this a dozen times already today, and it’s not dirt.

The ashes on his forehead, resembling the shape of a cross, most likely come from palms that were burned last year after Palm Sunday and were blessed by a priest. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, Catholic priests and some Protestant ministers mark their parishioners foreheads with the ashes, which symbolize both repentance and mortality.

“…till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:19

Or as the Book of Common Prayer succinctly puts it: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Ashes have symbolized repentance since the days of Moses, when Hebrews used the ashes of a burnt sacrificial cow for purification:

“Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke…It is to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered…The heifer is to be burned…

…A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer… They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin.” Numbers 19:2-9

Later, in the time of Esther:

“When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.”  — Esther 4:1

Sackcloth and ashes often went hand in hand in the Scriptures.

According to  Questions on the Lessons, Collect, Epistle, and Gospel in the Sunday Morning Service of the Church (1847) by Reverend Thomas Jackson:

“The name of Ash Wednesday is derived from a custom that prevailed in the primitive Church, for penitents at this time to express their humiliation by lying in sackcloth and ashes.”

Though featured prominently in the Bible, sackcloth was no fashion statement. It referred to different fabrics over the centuries, often a coarse material made of goat hair. Whatever it was, it wasn’t comfy. Criminals were forced to wear it as punishment, and to signify their status to others. People also wore sackcloth for mourning and repentance.

“Such persons as stood convicted of notorious crimes were on this day excommunicated by the Bishop, and not admitted to reconciliation with the Church until after the most public testimony of sorrow and repentance, and the greatest signs of humiliation.” (Jackson, 1847)

The sackcloth-and-ash self-flagellation combo was firmly established by Jesus’ day. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus denounces cities in which he had previously performed miracles by saying:

“If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”  Matthew 11:20-21

The Ash ritual became an annual event that marked the beginning of Lent sometime around the 7th century. Forty days before Easter, sinners were denounced and temporarily excommunicated. They were cast out, like Adam and Eve from Eden, and forced to live apart from their families and the parish for 40 days, hence the root of our word quarantine (“40 days”).

It’s actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The “40” days don’t include Sundays.

During the Middle Ages the emphasis on repentance shifted from from sins against the public to internal sins against God, a theme that is still at the heart of period known as Lent.


Date varies. Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) falls on February 21, 2012


Scores of cities from Rio to Cologne host their own Carnival festivities during the week before Lent, but not many can boast a party that dates back to 1268.

In those days, the Venice Carnevale was frowned upon by the local authorities and the Church. The debauchery and gluttony of the celebration recalled ancient pagan rites that flew in the face of the austerity of the 40-day Lent.

The Carnival before Lent is kind of like the “Boycott Gas for a Day” movement. It takes the punch out of not consuming something for a day if you consume twice as much the day before.

But don’t tell this to the Venetians. The Carnevale is a symbol of the city. And the symbol of Carnevale is the mask. Celebrants don their “masquerade” masks and costumes for both outdoor and indoor celebrations. During Carnevale neighbors become strangers and strangers become friends.

Despite being the biggest and most famous Carnival celebration in all Europe, the current incarnation of Carnevale is only a few decades old. The festival has been banned numerous times by the authorities during its 800-year history, notably in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic, and more recently by dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.

The Venice Carnevale differs from its counterparts because Venice lacks the streets required for the processions which are the main event of other celebrations. But Venice more than makes up for it with indoor banquets and masquerades and outdoor parties.

“…the whole town was transformed into a vast theatre, full of music, dance and festivities. The various ‘campi’ or small squares throughout the town were traditionally used to stage various events, as they still are today.”

Melanie K. Smith, Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies

Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras

Every Day’s a Holiday didn’t have the resources to make it to Venice or Mardi Gras this year, but we did attend the next best thing: the Venice Beach Mardi Gras in California, which as it falls on Saturday, is technically a Samedi Gras.

The word carnival — literally “farewell to the flesh” — refers to the period before Lent during which Catholics could still eat meat. “Carnival” has since come to mean any large communal party with rides and cotton candy. So the term “Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday — the day before Ash Wednesday) has been mistakenly used to refer to all the festivities leading up to the big day itself.

Saturday’s Venice Beach Mardi Gras featured locals in outlandish costumes, loud musicians, ecstatic crowds of bewildered tourists, and merry-making all around.

So really it was indistinguishable from any other day at Venice Beach.

The Bushman of Venice Beach
The Bushman of Venice Beach

I spoke with “The Bushman”, a Liberian who’s been on the boardwalk for ten years, and who shouted at passersby in his distinct African accent the same question many of us have been asking this Carnival season:

“Where’s my stimulus package!”

Judging by the amount of bills tourists tossed his way…he may have entered a new tax bracket.

See you in Venice!

Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach mural
Venice Beach apartment building
Venice Beach apartment building

Venice Beach: California Carnivale

Originally posted Feb. 23, 2009

Mardi Gras

February 21, 2012

[published Feb. 5, 2008]

Mardi Gras, as I’m sure you’re well aware, is first and foremost a devout religious ceremony, marking the last day in the Catholic liturgical calendar that observing Christians can wear beads, eat pancakes and show their boobs.

“Fat Tuesday” (or to the AMA: “Obese Tuesday”) marks the finale of the carnival season. The whole carnival season itself is called, surprisingly, “Carnival,” which spans from Twelfth Night (Epiphany) until the day before Ash Wednesday.

This year’s Mardi Gras is the earliest Mardi Gras in 25 years. But if you’re worried about the abbreviated Carnival season, fear not. The next time Fat Tuesday will fall as early as February 5 is 2160.

What’s changed about Carnival since Katrina? Not the popularity. After Katrina, visitors had dropped from 1 million to 360,000 in 2006. That number skyrocketed to 800,000 in 2007, and crowds this year are estimated to have surpassed the one million mark.

What else has increased? According to locals, the violence. As of Monday there were 5 shootings that injured 9 people, including one incident where a bullet fired in a scuffle outside the Holiday Inn Express pierced the wall of the hotel and struck a bystander in the head.

This year was celebrated as the 40th anniversary of Bacchus, the original “superkrewe.” Superkrewes like Bacchus and Endymion are credited with changing the face of Carnival, starting in the late 1960s. They invited international celebrities as guests of honor to the parades; they introduced larger, more extravagant floats and unprecedented amounts of booty–the bead and throw kind, not the Girls Gone Wild.

The increase in the size of the Krewes (Endymion alone has 2000 riders, 39 floats and 27 marching bands) and the celebration allowed out-of-towners more participation at Carnival. Still, long-time Orleanians note that the new larger scope of Carnival has compromised the communal feel the celebration once held.

Each year krewes select a king and queen for their parade and ball. Tradition dictates that the king is an older, distinguished member of the social club. A group of eligible young women are served a special King Cake with one bean (or plastic baby) baked inside. She who finds the lucky bean in her cake becomes the new Queen, provided she hasn’t choked to death.

King Cake

(King Cake)

Mardi Gras and Carnival’s roots go back to the spring festivals of ancient Greece and Rome, notably Lupercalia, which took place in February.

“Carnival” means “farewell to the flesh.” A great, succinct history of Carnival’s evolution is at:

A Brief History of Mardi Gras


Mardi Gras Multimedia

Arthur Hardy’s History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras History

2006 NY Times article: No Cinderella Story, No Ball, No Black Debutante

Krewe Index

Pancake Week

Date varies. February 20-26, 2012

There’s no Mardi Gras or Carnival in Russia. Lent doesn’t descend on Orthodox Christians in one big swoop as in Catholicism, but in a series of events with increasingly strict regulations.

Triodion begins a full month before Lent.

Two weeks later, Meatfare Sunday marks the last day Orthodox Christians can eat meat until after Easter, aka Pascha.

The Sunday after Meatfare is Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products.

In Catholic communities the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is sometimes called Pancake Day, while in Orthodox Russia the whole week before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (Butter Week) or Blini Week (Pancake Week). [Blini has the same root as ‘blintz’.] During Pancake Week Russians empty their pantry of milk, eggs, butter, and other Lent no-no’s, by throwing them into a bowl and mixing them to make pancakes. Russian pancakes are closer to what we would call crepes.

Maslenitsa, by Boris Kustodiev, 1919

The late-Februay/early-March celebration combines Christian theology with an ancient pagan tradition of welcoming the spring.

Maslenitsa comes to a close with Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

In Orthodox communities this is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. During the evening ceremonies church-goers face and verbally forgive one another for anything the year before.

The Orthodox Great Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday, and is called Clean Monday.

Carnival – Trinidad

March 7-8, 2011

February 20-21, 2012

Rarely has so much joy emanated from such a small dot on the globe, and reverberated with as much noise as Carnival.

Trinidad and Tobago is the 172nd smallest country in the world, but per capita, it’s party spot #1.

In the 1770s Trinidad had only a few thousand inhabitants, mostly Amerindians; it was one of the most underpopulated regions of Spain’s New World colonies. Spain opened immigration up to French colonists in the West Indies, who were somewhat miffed at the British takeover of the Caribbean. And to sweeten the deal, Spain included land grants for these emigrants and their slaves–provided they were Catholic and swore allegiance to the Spanish King. By the time the British took over the island in 1798—ending 300 years of Spanish rule—the French plantocracy was the dominant group. The island boasted sizable populations of West Africans, Spanish, and Amerindians as well, and was home to pirates, planters, slaves and soldiers alike.

map of Trinidad and Tobago

The French celebrated fetes champêtre (garden parties) and bals masque (masquerade balls), borrowing some traditions from their homeland and picking others from the seemingly exotic rituals of their slaves. One highlights of these festivities was a canboulay ceremony, in which “landowners dressed up as negres jardins (garden slaves) and imitated the processions that occurred whenever a sugar cane field caught fire.” (NY Times, Dec. 28, 1986)

As a possession of the United Kingdom, slavery was outlawed in 1833 with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. Now it was the former slaves’ time to celebrate, and that they did, openly celebrating West African rhythms and rituals and mixing them with those of their former owners.

Grisso notes that the Carnival bears resemblance to the African Egungun festival, where families dressed in colors, in bands, to honor their ancestors. And while most European festivals transpired indoors, African communities celebrated in the great wide open. Grisso theorizes that the true origin of Carnival may have been the ancient Egyptian festivals, like the one Herodotus describes, in honor of the god Artemis…

Every baris [barge] carrying them there overflows with people, a huge crowd of them, men and women together. Some of the women have clappers, while some of the men have pipes which they play throughout their voyage. The rest of the men and women sign and clap their hands. When in the course of their journey they reach a community–not the city of their destination, but somewhere else–they steer the bareis close to the bank. Some of the women carry on doing what I have already described them as doing, but others shout out scornful remarks to the women in the town, or dance, or stand and pull up their clothes to expose themselves…more wine is consumed during this festival than throughout the whole of the rest of the year. According to the local inhabitants, up to 700,000 men and women, excluding children, come together for the festival.

Herodotus states, “the Egyptians were the first people in the world to hold general festive assemblies, and religious processions and parades, and the Greeks learnt from the Egyptians.”

The tradition was imported by the Romans, and through Rome to France. And it may be the Carnival of Trinidad was the reuniting of the Carnival traditions, filtered through two cultures on two separate continents over two-thousand years, and then merged together for the first time on a tiny island called Trinidad.

Carnival, Port of Spain, Trinidad
Carnival, Port of Spain, Trinidad

However, the British were not quite the party people that the French were. They banned the use of drums, fearing its pounding resulted in non-Victorian outcomes. The inhabitants merely used their creativity and banged on other objects, such as tins. Today the steel drum is universally recognized as a defining symbol of the Caribbean and of Carnivals world-wide.

Eventually the spirit of Carnival migrated eastward. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is the largest public event in the British capitol.

Looking Ahead to Carnival: Trinidad

Carnival in Trinidad: Evolution and Symbolic Meaning

The History of Herodotus: Book 2

The African and Spiritual Origins of Carnival

History is Made at Night: Politics of Dancing and Musicking – Trinidad Carnival

Easter: Dates

April 4, 2010
April 24, 2011
April 8, 2012
Despite the overwhelming secular popularity of Christmas in the Western world, the big daddy of all Christian holidays is actually Easter. It’s the oldest Christian holiday and the most important.

No one knows for sure how the term Easter came to be. It probably derived from Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Fertility and New Life. Which helps to explain why we still celebrate the resurrection with bunny rabbits and painted eggs.

But in French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Danish, the words for Easter (Paques, Paschen, Pasqua, Pascua, Pask, and Paasske) all come from the Latin Paschalia, itself was a variant of the Greek Pascha, a term used by early Christians to refer to the even older Hebrew word Pesach, aka Passover. Pesach was the holiday Jesus and his Disciples were celebrating on the occasion of the Last Supper.

In the United States, by far the most common method for determining the date of Easter is by scanning the Sundays in March or April for the one that says “Easter” on your calendar. This proven technique has not failed me in all my years of prognostication.

But if you chronophiles want to get a little more complicated, Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

But if you really want to get freaky with the details…

…and believe me, you don’t…

Since the date of Easter determines the dates of so many other Christian holidays from the Triodion to Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, it was of paramount importance in the early days of the church, that Western and Eastern Churches agree on the same day to celebrate. Which, of course, they almost never do

In the first centuries after Christ, Eastern Churches related the date of Easter to the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Passover falls on the 14th day, or full moon, of the month of Nisan. However, since the Jews at that time used a lunar calendar the date of Passover would change in relation to the solar calendar.

The Roman Church decreed that Easter should fall each year on a Sunday, and should show relevance to the solar, rather than the lunar calendar.

The Eastern Church used a 19-year “paschal” cycle to determine the annual date of Easter. (In the fifth century BC the Greek astronomer Meton had discovered that the 19 year solar calendar coincided with the 235 month lunar calendar, with a differentiation of approximately 2 hours.)

The Roman Church on the other hand, developed an 84-year paschal cycle, which is roughly the formula we use today. The Sunday following the first full moon after the equinox. In the Roman Catholic Church’s definition, the Spring Equinox is fixed on March 21. Thus the earliest Easter could fall is March 22.

The Eastern Church no longer relates Easter to Passover, but maintains that Easter should not fall before or during the Jewish holiday. Also the Eastern Church uses the actual spring equinox as measured from Jerusalem, site of the crucifixion, and follows the Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian, adding to the complication of the dates. Still, Western and Eastern Easters do sometimes fall on the same date as they did on April 8, 2007.

2008 marks one of the earliest possible Easters, on March 23, only two days after the equinox. The ancient pagan traditions and rituals of spring have not only refused to die, they have become forever intertwined with the celebration of Easter.

published March 23, 2008

Pascha – Orthodox Church

April 24, 2011

April 4, 2010

In March the Protestant and Catholic Churches celebrated Easter; last week Jehovah’s Witnesses observed the Memorial of Christ’s Death; but today the Eastern Orthodox Church gets the last word, celebrating the Resurrection in what is known in many countries as Pascha.

The English word Easter is thought to derive from early pagan deities such as Eostre. In most Christian countries the holiday celebrating the Resurrection is referred to by variants on the Greek Pascha. (Pascha, or pesach in Hebrew, was the holiday Jesus and His disciples observed on the occasion of the Last Supper. Often translated as “pass over,” pesach can also mean “hover over” as in to protect, or safeguard.)

The Orthodox Paschal cycle repeats every 19 years, as opposed to the Western Paschal cycle, which repeats every 84 years. One proviso of the Orthodox date of Pascha is that it cannot fall before the Jewish Passover, which partly accounts for the different dates when Easter is celebrated.

Lewis Patsavos, in Dating Pascha in the Orthodox Church, points out a conundrum in the New Testament:

In the Gospels the Last Supper is described as a Passover meal, while St. John records the death of Christ as the same hour in which paschal lambs were sacrificed in preparation for the holiday.

Two traditions grew out of this discrepancy. One in which Pascha was observed on Passover itself, “regardless of the day of the week. The other observed it on the Sunday following Passover.”

The latter approach won out, which is why virtually all Churches celebrate Pascha on Sunday.

In Pascha Means Passover Reverend Anthony Michaels draws an analogy between the sacrifice of the lambs in Egypt by the Hebrews, the blood of which was meant to protect them from the tenth plague, and the “Sacrifice of the Son of God who is the ‘lamb that takes away the sin of the world.'”

The site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection is believed to be the present day site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


“It stands on a site that encompasses both Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where he was buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and it remains the holiest Christian site in the world.”

Sacred Destinations

Easter: Origins

Holy Week comes to a close with the greatest and oldest of Christian holidays: Easter, or Pascha, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

The Easter we celebrate today encompasses a confluence of traditions and rituals that merged during the holiday’s transformation across 2000 years and even more miles from ancient Jerusalem, through Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and Central and Western Europe.

The name Easter itself  may be one of the many relics of ancient European paganism. Eostre, or Eastre, was a Germanic goddess. If the name bears a resemblance to the English word for the cardinal direction East, it’s no coincidence. East comes from same the Proto-Indo-European root as ‘dawn’. East is the direction where we see the rebirth of the sun each day, and Eostre was the goddess of the dawn.

The Venerable Bede wrote about Eostre back in the early 8th century, though by that time, he says, worship of the goddess had died out:

In olden time the English people…calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence after the manner of the Hebrews and the Greeks, [the months] take their name from the moon, for the moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Sol-monath; March Hreth-monath; April, Eostur-monath…

Eostur-monath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. — Bede, Caput XV: De mensibus Anglorum

There are divergent theories on Eostre. Many relate her to the pagan goddesses Astarte, Isis and Ishtar. Some historians however have cast doubts on the breadth of Bede’s claims about Eostre. and question her very existence.

Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts (1884)
Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts (1884)

The suspected pagan origin of the name in no way diminishes the reverence of the holiday for English-speaking Christians. Easter refers to the dawn and the direction of the rising sun, as well as to the ancient goddess, and as such it’s an applicable name for a holiday celebrating resurrection.

Other pagan pastoral traditions have become incorporated as secular, cultural rituals rather than religious ones. For instance, Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are ancient symbols of rebirth and fertility, common themes among Spring festivals.