Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Happy Sexagesima:
Only Fifteen More Drinking Days Until Lent

For the hopelessly POD or just us retro and nostalgic Catholics, last week was Septuagesima. This week, naturally, is therefore Sexagesima, next week will be Quinquagesima (one of my favorite words) for three days, and after that Quadragesima, the first Sunday of Lent.

A history lesson for those of us who were born after 1963. In the old days, for a couple of millennia, back when TV was still in black-and-white, "fasting" meant "not eating." That sounds strange to modern Catholic ears. Today, "fasting" requires a paragraph in the bulletin to explain, because it means eating just like always most of the time, except on Lenten Fridays and Ash Wednesday, when you can eat only one meal a day, except that's not quite true because you can really eat two other meals, but you have to call them "collations," which is Latin for "meals you eat while pretending to fast." But no snacking, and we're serious about this.

In case this discipline should be too rigorous, the following are excused: children under the age of 14, adults over the age of 59, pregnant women, and anyone else who complains to their parish priest that they feel faint when driving past Whataburger without pulling over for a bacon and cheese special.

In addition, the ancient discipline of fasting is observed before mass. Or rather the discipline of "fasting," which requires that no food be eaten within the hour before mass, and in fact "before mass" doesn't mean counting backwards sixty minutes from the processional, but an hour before the Eucharist is received. Which is to say, no eating your french toast in the pews.

So. What used to be done? Of course there were variations in different countries, but here's the rules that obtained in the European Middle Ages and for long afterwards. My history knowledge is insufficient (see post below) to tell you when the full fasting rules were in place, but it was pretty darn early. First, fasting really meant "no eating" on Ash Wednesday and on Friday. All Wednesdays and Fridays were fast days throughout the year, up until the 1960's, though by then they were Station Days and you only fasted through noon, prayed the Angelus, and scarfed down lunch. Fasting at various levels of strictness was observed also from midnight until mass, on Saturdays and other vigils of feasts, and on Ember Days and Rogation Days (don't ask).

Fasting on non-Fridays of Lent meant only one meal per day, really. And no meat. And no meat products: eggs, dairy, broth. All vegan, brother. Except for the fish thing, which nobody has ever really been able to explain. An attempt at no alcohol lasted only until the ninth century, but that was a little too much to ask of good Catholics, so you may have your glass of wine with your cod filet. The meal was noonish, but the dreaded collation crept in around the time that wine did, though it was seriously just a piece of bread and, of course, a wee drappy of the tonic.

To make it all a little less brutal, one eased into Lent with the abovementioned Gesima days. At Septuagesima (meaning the seventieth day before Good Friday, and thus the third Sunday before Lent), depending on the part of the world you lived in, was a time to start cutting down on the goodies. Penitential eating increased --or rather, decreased--at Sexagesima (sixtieth day before Good Friday, and thus the second Sunday before Lent), followed by Quinquagesima (etc.), and then Quadragesima (etc., etc.). Those of you who are quick at arithmetic may notice that the days don't quite add up, what with weeks having only seven days. Pay no attention to that minor fact.

By Quinquagesima, if not before, you have given up meat. This was called the Carne Vale (Latin for "goodbye, meat!") season therefore. In some parts of the Catholic world, notably among depraved French speakers, the penitential abstention from meat turned into a season of partying, giving the modern word "carnival." No doubt it was getting to stop eating frogs and snails that made them so celebratory, but at any rate the Church tried hard, and obviously unsuccessfully, to curtail the revelries, notably through the introduction of the Forty Hours Devotion during Quinquagesima. You may judge the success of the devotion by comparing the number of college students spending the days before Lent praying empty-bellied before the exposed Sacrament to those heading off to Louisiana to collect beads.

The day before Ash Wednesday was the last day for using butter, eggs, and lard, none of which would last through Lent, and so that Tuesday became Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday) or, in England, Pancake Day, since that's the obvious best use of the soon-to-be-banned foods. Quinquagesima was also considered the perfect time to kick off Lent with a good confession, or "shriving" (a word that persists in English in the phrase "give someone short shrift"), and so become known as Shrovetide.

This year, let's get into the Sexagesimal spirit. Lay off the junk food and desserts and snacking. Stop before the second helping. More veggies. But don't take away my Shiner Bock.


Anonymous Yahmdallah said...


Great post!

7:42 AM  
Anonymous big tex said...

I'm with you on the Shiner Bock! However, the penalty will be much stiffer if you take my Salvator.

Some history on the dopple bock:

The Paulaner brewery of Munich can lay claim to the creation of doppelbock as a style. A group of Italian monks from the order of St. Francis of Paula crossed the Alps and settled near the city of Munich. Devout Catholics, they followed their traditions religiously (excuse the pun), which meant fasting occasionally. Solid food was verboten, but liquid, not. As the monks were expert brewers anyhow, making a brew that sustained them during these periods of dubious abstinence was a logical choice. Strong and nutritious fit the bill perfectly, providing sustenance both physical and mental.

Strong beer, brewed with local Germanic influence, resulted in what is now doppelbock. The monks established the Paulaner brewery in 1634 (coincidently, not long after Herr Pilcher from Einbeck visited Munich). Their beer became available to the public in 1780. The beer was named Salvator (The Savior) for obvious reasons, and it carries that moniker to this day. As the beer became popular, other breweries in Bavaria brewed it with great success and adopted the "-ator" suffix for their own versions.

5:14 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Wow, what a beer! Must try. And how convenient that pretzels are a classic Lent food. One begins to see how our European forbears made it through the long winter penance.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Hi Sharon! Yes, I'm in the blogosphere. I blogged for a while but stopped about a year ago although I've been thinking about starting up again. N. is the seminarian I was refering to in my post on Amy's blog. He continually amazes us with his misinformation. We have been going to noon mass and then rushing off to the Schoenstatt Colloquim grabing some fast food on the way. I bet you thought this had no connection to your blog did you! So I guess we'll have to just bring along a few crusts of bread instead of swinging into McDonald's. Ilm glad to find your blog. I'll be back. Jim J.

2:07 PM  
Blogger March Hare said...

Found you via Julie D. at Happy Catholic...

I remember when fasting before Communion was 3 hours, which meant the 9:00 a.m. and the 12:15 p.m. Masses were the most popular.

I never realized that eggs and dairy were supposed to be restricted. Pancakes for Friday night dinner were quite popular in my house (more so than fish sticks or tuna noodle casserole, the Other Catholic Dish).

I make my kids give up snacks. Last year, DS#2 realized that it was not supposed to kick in until 14. He was 14 and was upset that he had given up snacks all those years "for nothing!" LOL!

3:03 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Glad to have you come visit! Let me know when/if you start your blogging up again, and I'll add you to my links list. What with this being such a roaringly busy blog, you'll be swamped with spillover traffic in no time.

March Hare,

Now don't get the impression that the ban on eggs & dairy was still in force up until Vatican II; in the 20th century at least, only meat was forbidden on fast days. But every day of Lent was a fast day, with just the one meatless meal a day, eaten at noon, as on the Fridays of Advent. I don't know when the vegan Lent custom ended.

3:20 PM  
Blogger romy said...

i also found you through happy catholic, and am (euh) happy that i did !

thanks for a great post, and great reminder. and i promise not to ouch your shiner bock as long as you leave my côtes du rhône alone. ;)

happy quinquagesima ...

4:26 PM  

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