THE EVENING BEFORE ASH WEDNESDAY
by Fred Schaeffer, OFS
If you search the Internet long enough, you'll find what you are looking for. I was looking for very old Shrove Tuesday celebrations, in Europe. First I looked in English, but that didn't give me what I wanted, so then I began in Dutch (I was born in Holland in 1940) - and I found it! Very surprised there was even a web site delving that far back. It seems that in the Flemish town of Aalst, the so-called "Vastenavond" (evening before Lent begins), so the very first time there was a carnival procession in Aalst was in 1851! However the oldest historical resources of celebration dates back to 1432! Now that's a very long time ago.
For you history buffs, there is even a review in English with all of this history - see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnival_of_Aalst
Aalst is in Belgium, about 30 miles southwest of Antwerp. There are many old towns in Flemish Belgium and also in the Netherlands (Holland). For example, the town I was born in, Nijmegen, dates back to 15 B.C. - and there are still some Roman ruins left as it is considered to be the oldest city in the Netherlands and celebrated its 2000th year of existence in 2005. However, the history of Shrove Tuesday in Aalst is the oldest I can find.
Originally, this carnival was a Catholic feast with some heathen overtones. Nowadays, I am sure it is no longer Catholic but more on the Pagan side... unfortunate. I do recall, though faintly, that in Nijmegen, Carnival was always a time of good eating, lots of singing and laughing. I doubt that it prepared us for Lent, but it was a lot of fun! Maybe Lent was needed to do penance for all the freedoms taken on Shrove Tuesday, I think I won't get into that subject.
Mardi Gras came to the United States from France in 1699. On March 3 of 1699, the French explorer, Iberville, had set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France. In honor of this important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras. I have visited New Orleans although not at Mardi Gras. That was years before the Hurricane Katrina. It was during that same visit that I visited a Franciscan church in the 9th Ward as a Franciscan Postulant (Fall of 1996). It was during that trip that we ate Beignets at the Café du Monde. This reminded me of Shrove Tuesday as the Dutch have "Oliebollen" (sort of deep-fried dumplings which remind me strongly of Beignets, although the latter are more refined. Also, "Oliebollen" are consumed principally around New Years', although there doesn't have to be a specific reason. Any feast will do, even the "Vastenavond."
Some of these Catholic traditions lasted for centuries. But it was never the idea to eat or drink to excess in the old days when people still had a modicum of personal discipline.
Thus I enter upon Lent 2011 with thoughts about fun and food. Let us look forward to a time of joy, not so much in the stomach but in the heart, for we know that Lent is the preparation for Our Lord's suffering, death and resurrection. What does that mean to us? It means that there is great hope that we can merit Heaven, if we do all the right things. Repent! “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. ch. 4).
The best way to observe Lent is through daily prayer. Increase your faith relationship with Jesus on a daily basis by focussing on Him, His love for us and read Scripture. A daily Rosary is real helpful too.
F. Schaeffer, OFS
March 9, 2011, rev. 05Feb2018
Secular Franciscan Order
Ordo Franciscanus Sæcularis
Divine Mercy Fraternity
Vero Beach, FL
Officers as of 1/10/2016
Fred Schaeffer, OFS
Helen Caldarone, OFS
Mary "Jean" McGovern, OFS
Jack Reddy, OFS
Donna Haro, OFS
Joanne Giordano, OFS
Fred Schaeffer, OFS