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Meaning and Celebration of Lent and Eastertide Part 1: Lenten Traditions

Eastertide at Kentwell. Photograph courtesy of

The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or Easter, is the holiest day of the Christian liturgical year. Preceded by the 40 days of Lent (not including Sundays), Eastertide is a 50-day period beginning on Easter Sunday and ending on Pentecost Sunday.

In Tudor England, Lent and Eastertide were celebrated with all of the solemnity that the season dictated. Religious proscriptions were strictly followed by people at all levels of Tudor society. Whether under a Catholic or Protestant monarch, this time in the Christian year was observed very much like it is today.

The seasons of Lent and Eastertide are movable feasts based on the cycles of the moon and were enforced by both church and state in Tudor England. Eatser Sunday always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after March 21st. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter falls on the following Sunday. All of the other dates of Eastertide then fall into place.

Just as today, Lent in Tudor England was a time of repentance and self-denial. To an observer, the most obvious form this self-denial took was in diet-fasting. During Lent, diets were limited to foods that contained no meat, dairy, or egg products. Almonds were used as a substitute to make milk, butter and cheese. Fasting was not new to the Tudor lifestyle. Fasting days comprised more than half the days in the normal Elizabethan year. Fasting was also a way to boost the Tudor fishing industry, and fish was eaten two times a day during Lent.

Shrove Tuesday was the last unrestricted day before Lent began. It was named for the practice of being shriven. On this day (before the Protestant Reformation) people went to confess their sins and be forgiven. Shrove Tuesday was a day for big eating and celebrating. Pancakes were – and are today – a popular traditional food for Shrove Tuesday. This dish would use up any eggs or butter left in the household before Lent. Today Shrove Tuesday is celebrated by many as “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras” with much feasting and revelry, which had their origin in ancient pagan ceremonies. At the Tudor court, Shrove Tuesday celebrations boasted jousting, plays, music and masques. Among ordinary citizens, entertainment included cock fighting, wrestling, football (a very dangerous sport in Tudor times) and dancing.

Ash Wednesday begins the 46 days of fast before Easter - the Great Fast. Ash Wednesday was considered a “black fast” with no consumption of food. Allowable foods during the rest of Lent included bread, grains and fish, vegetables, salt and ale. Meatless pottage was often eaten. With stored food supplies low in winter, most ordinary people were forced to eat this type of diet in any case. Mondays and Saturdays during Lent were "scambling" days. On these days, people had to make due with whatever leftovers were available. The wealthy had access to potatoes, roasted fruits, fried rice cakes and many diverse seafoods, including porpoise, seal, salmon, crab and lobster. Those who were very old, very young or ill were exempt from the laws of fasting. A tradition of Ash Wednesday was the creation of a “Jack o' Lent". This was a straw effigy set up and pelted with stones or otherwise abused as symbolic of punishment for sins.

Jack o' Lent. Photo courtesy of

A Lancashire Calendar for 1631, by Kathleen R. Sands, 1994.





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