Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Lent



General Features

Within the liturgy of the Church Lent is the season of penitential and prayerful preparation for the great feast of Easter. This penance was practiced from the earliest times by strict fasting, additional prayer services, and by other penitential exercises which were of obligation for those who had committed public sins and crimes, and in which the other faithful joined more and more during medieval times in token of humble, voluntary penance.

The external manifestation of the penitential character of Lent is apparent in the liturgical color (purple), and in the discontinuance of Alleluia, Gloria, and Te Deum in all seasonal Masses and Offices starting with Septuagesima. From Ash Wednesday on, organs remain silent, solemn weddings and other joyous celebrations in church are prohibited.

In the ancient Church Lent was also the season of immediate preparation for baptism (scrutinia: investigations). The catechumens were not only instructed but also frequently questioned about their knowledge and understanding of what they had been taught. A public scrutiny took place, in which the bishop carefully ascertained whether they had given up all habits of sinful living. They had to produce witnesses who would testify as to their sincerity and purity of motive.

The thought of Christ’s Passion, which now is predominant in popular devotion all through Lent, is reflected in the liturgy only during the last two weeks of the season (Passiontide).

The Mass texts of Lent are of very early origin; they go back before the time of Gregory the Great (604). Only the Thursday Masses are of later date; Gregory II (731) introduced them. A unique feature of these weekday masses is the Oratio super populum (Prayer over the People) after the Postcommunio. This prayer used to be recited in every Mass throughout the year in the fifth and sixth centuries, but was later replaced by the “Blessing of the Faithful,” which came into the Roman liturgy from the Gallic-Frankish observance. Only in Lent has it been retained up to the present.


detail from the painting 'Saint Charles Borromoe Fasting' by Daniele Crespi, date unknown; left side nave, baptistry chapel, church of Santa Maria della Passione, Milan, Italy; photographed on 26 February 2008 by Giovanni Dall'Orto; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsFrom the time of the Apostles the Church has singled out two days of the week for special observance: in honor of Christ’s resurrection, Sunday replaced the ancient Sabbath as the new “Day of the Lord,” while in memory of His death, Friday became a weekly day of fast. In addition, a strict two-day fast was kept from Good Friday to Easter Sunday by many early Christians who did not eat or drink at all during that period. The practice of this “Passion fast” was based on the Lord’s word: “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day” (Mark 2, 20).

Eventually, a longer period of fasting was introduced in preparation for Easter, although its observance varied widely in the early centuries. Some churches fasted only in Holy Week, others for two or more weeks. Sunday was always excepted from the fast (in the Eastern Churches, Saturday as well). During the third and fourth centuries most churches gradually adopted a forty days’ fast, in imitation of Christ, Who had fasted forty days in the desert (Luke 4:2). Saint Athanasius (373), Patriarch of Alexandria, after having traveled to Rome and over the greater part of the Roman Empire in Europe, wrote in the year 339 that “the whole world” fasted forty days.

How did the Christians fast in times past? The various forms of fast and abstinence in the first centuries made for confusion, but gradually there emerged general rules which eventually became the accepted practice of the whole Church. In a letter to Saint Augustine of Canterbury (604), Pope Saint Gregory the Great announced the final form of abstinence which soon became the law: “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, eggs” (and butter, of course). For almost a thousand years this remained the norm of abstinence for all except those who were excused for reasons of ill health. In fact, the Eastern Churches (and many pious people among the Slavic nations of the Latin Church) still keep their fast in this manner; they don’t touch meat or eggs or butter all through Lent, not even on Sundays.

The observance of Lent also includes the jejunium ( fast in the strict sense). Its early practice consisted of eating only once a day, toward evening; nothing else except a little water was taken all day. After the eighth century, the time for this one and only meal was advanced to the hour of the None in the liturgical prayer (meaning the ninth hour of the Roman day, which is three o’clock in the afternoon). This meal was gradually transferred to the middle of the day (hence our word noon, from None). The noonday meal did not become a general practice until the fourteenth century.

Saint Basil the Great (379), Archbishop of Caesaria in Asia Minor, vividly described in one of his sermons the widespread observance of the fast in the fourth century (and by “fasting” he meant only one meal a day):

There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no man then separate himself from the number of fasters, in which every race of mankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

The severity of the ancient rule was applied very sensibly at all times by the Church authorities. Saint John Chrysostom (407), Patriarch of Constantinople, gave this instruction: “If your body is not strong enough to continue fasting all day, no wise man will reprove you; for we serve a gentle and merciful Lord who expects nothing of us beyond our strength.” 12 Pope Saint Leo I (461) pointed out that fasting is a means and not an end in itself; its purpose is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. He coined the famous phrase which a thousand Christian writers have not ceased to reiterate: “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.”

It was not until the ninth century, however, that less rigid laws of fasting were introduced. It came about in 817 when the monks of the Benedictine order, who did much labor in the fields and on the farms, were allowed to take a little drink with a morsel of bread in the evening. This extremely light refreshment they took while they listened to the daily reading of the famous Collationes (collected instructions) written by Abbot Cassian in the fourth century. Our modern word collation, meaning a slight repast, comes from this.

Eventually the Church extended the new laws to the laity as well, and by the end of medieval times they had become universal practice; everybody ate a light evening meal in addition to the main meal at noon. The present custom of taking some breakfast on fasting days is of very recent origin (the beginning of the nineteenth century).

Abstinence from lacticinia (milk foods), which included milk, butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia because of the lack of oil and other substitute foods in those countries. The Church using common sense granted many dispensations in this matter in all countries of Europe. People who did eat the milk foods would often, when they could afford it, give alms for the building of churches or other pious endeavors. (One of the steeples of the Cathedral of Rouen in France is still known for this reason as “butter tower.”) In past centuries the Western Church increasingly allowed the consumption of lacticinia until the new Code of Canon Law (1918) omitted them entirely from the list of abstinential foods.

During the Reformation some of the Protestant churches retained the Lenten fast, but not for long. In England, the government issued a series of proclamations and statutes enjoining the duty of Lenten fast. It was announced by the town criers on order of Parliament and changed all the time. The Puritans substituted monthly fast days. After the Restoration (1660), the Lenten laws were generally neglected, although they remained on the statute book until 1863, when Parliament finally repealed them. On the other hand, while the observance of Lent was no longer kept, many members of the Protestant clergy (among them John Wesley) personally kept the fast and also recommended it to their congregations. The growth of the Oxford Movement revived the practice of Lenten fasting in some Protestant groups, who now observe it according to the spirit of the universal Christian tradition.

Among the Eastern Rites, many people still retain the old and strict routine, refusing to avail themselves of dispensations, although such are readily granted. In the Near East numerous priests keep a total fast for two days and eat only every third day all through Lent. Among the Russians, Ukrainians, and other Slavic nations, it is common practice to fast until three in the afternoon, while children, though not obliged to, fast voluntarily until noon.

Preparation for Baptism

16th century baptismal font, Church of Saint Catherine, Gdanks, Poland; photographed on 22 August 2014 by 1bumer; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn the first centuries after the persecutions in the Roman Empire, Lent was not only a time of fasting and public penance but also the annual season of “preparation for baptism.” Those who had proved themselves serious applicants and had received preliminary instructions for many months would be admitted to the baptismal rites at the beginning of Lent. While the details of this practice varied locally, it was everywhere a somewhat hard school for the catechumens (candidates for baptism). If they were married, they had to live in continence all through Lent. They were not allowed to bathe and had to keep a complete fast every day until sunset. Above all, however, they had to practice fervent prayer and sincere contrition for their past sins. Separated from the faithful, they stood in church at every service, weak from hunger, and constantly admonished by the bishop, “harshly scourged with regulations and catechetical instructions,” as Saint Augustine observed.

Standing barefoot on old rags or goat skins (symbolizing the godless world), they were exorcized in a special ceremony at the start of Lent. The bishop would breathe on them with a hiss and utter the command addressed to the Devil, whose slaves they had been in idolatry: “Depart, thou accursed one!” At another ceremony, they listened for the first time to the Apostolic Creed, named symbolum (probably meaning handclasp; contract). Each candidate solemnly affirmed his belief in the sacred truths, and was then obliged to memorize the Creed, in order to “return the handclasp” (reddere symbolum) by public recitation on Holy Saturday.

A week later (usually on Palm Sunday), the bishop entrusted them with the sacred words of the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father.” Finally, on Holy Thursday, they interrupted the fast and took a welcome bath at the public bathhouses, which were still in use in Roman cities and towns. The rest of the ceremonies, familiar from the ritual of baptism, were performed at the solemn Easter Vigil.


The official term of the forty days’ fast, Quadragesima (fortieth), is first mentioned in the fifth canon (decree) of the Council of Nicaea (325), although its reference to Lent is not yet certain; at the time of Saint Gregory (sixth century), however, the word was clearly applied to the period of Lenten fast. 24 The same word was also applied to the Sunday on which the fast began at that time (the first Sunday of Lent). In about 600 a.d. the period of fasting was made to begin four days earlier by Saint Gregory in order to establish the exact number of forty days, and since that time Lent has begun on the Wednesday before Quadragesima Sunday. (Only the Diocese of Milan in Italy still adheres to the ancient custom of starting the fast on the first Monday in Lent.)

The names for Lent in all Latin countries come from the word Quadragesima. The Greek word for it is Tessarakoste, and the Slavonic, Chetyridesnica. Our English term refers to the season of the year, sometimes explained as coming from the old Anglo- Saxon Lengten-tide, springtime, when the days are lengthening. The German Fastenzeit means “fasting time.” The Hungarians call it the “Great Fast” (Nagy-bdjt), and in Arabic-speaking countries they say the “Big Fast” (Sawm al-Kabir). The Christian population of Malta has adopted the Moslem term Randan for Lent.

Ash Wednesday

ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday; photographed on 22 February 2012 by Jennifer Balaska; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe first day of Lent is called “Ash Wednesday” in all Christian countries of the Western world from the ceremony of imposing blessed ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful while the priest pronounces the words “Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris” (Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return) (Genesis 3, 19). The name “Ash Wednesday” (Feria quarta cinerum) was officially introduced by Pope Urban II (1099); prior to that the first day of Lent was called “Beginning of the Fast” (initium jejunii).

The ashes used are obtained from burning the blessed palms of the previous Palm Sunday. They are also given a special blessing before being distributed on Ash Wednesday. The four prayers employed in the Roman Missal for this ceremony date back to the eighth century.

Public Penance

The use of ashes as a token of penance and sorrow is an ancient one, often mentioned in the Scripture of the Old Testament (for example, in Jonas 3, 5-9 and Jeremias 6, 26 and 25, 34). Christ, too, refers to this custom, in Matthew 11, 21. The Church accepted it from Jewish tradition and preserved its original meaning. The early Christian writer Tertullian (third century) mentions the imposition of ashes as one of the external marks of Christian penance.31 Persons who had committed serious public sin and scandal were enjoined on Ash Wednesday with the practice of “public penance.” The period of this penance lasted until Holy Thursday, when they were solemnly reconciled, absolved from their sins, and allowed to receive Holy Communion. Since it extended through forty days, its observance was called “quarantine” (forty). This word was also accepted into general use to denote a separation or expulsion from human contact in the case of infectious diseases.

The imposition of public penance on Ash Wednesday was an official rite in Rome as early as the fourth century, and soon spread to all Christianized nations. Numerous descriptions of this ancient ceremony have been preserved in medieval manuscripts and, in every detail, breathe a spirit of harshness and humility really frightening to us of the present generation.

Public sinners approached their priests shortly before Lent to accuse themselves of their misdeeds, and were presented by the priests on Ash Wednesday to the bishop of the place. Outside the cathedral, poor and noble alike stood barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, heads bowed in humble contrition. The bishop, assisted by his canons, assigned to each one particular acts of penance according to the nature and gravity of his crime. Whereupon they entered the church, the bishop leading one of them by the hand, the others following in single file, holding each other’s hands. Before the altar, not only the penitents, but also the bishop and all his clergy recited the seven penitential psalms. Then, as each sinner approached, the bishop imposed his hands on him, sprinkled him with holy water, threw the blessed ashes on his head, and invested him with the tunic of sackcloth.

After this ceremony the penitents were led out of the church and forbidden to re-enter until Holy Thursday (for the solemn rite of reconciliation ) . Meanwhile, they would spend Lent apart from their families in a monastery or some other place of voluntary confinement, where they occupied themselves with prayer, manual labor, and works of charity. Among other things they had to go barefoot all through Lent, were forbidden to converse with others, were made to sleep on the ground or on a bedding of straw, and were not allowed to bathe or to cut their hair.

Private Penance

Although the imposition of ashes originally applied only to public sinners, many devout people soon voluntarily submitted to it, so that by the end of the eleventh century it had become general in all European countries. The popes, too, adopted it for their personal use. In medieval times they walked barefoot on Ash Wednesday to the church of Santa Sabina, accompanied by their cardinals (also barefoot), where the pope received the ashes from the oldest cardinal-bishop, and afterward distributed them to all the cardinals.

After the Reformation, the imposition of ashes was discontinued in most Protestant churches, but was kept alive for a time in the Church of England by special proclamations of the government in 1538 and 1550, which reaffirmed it. It was gradually neglected, and completely forgotten in England by the seventeenth century. Today the Anglican Church keeps a relic of the ancient character of Ash Wednesday in a special service of “Commination,” a solemn avowal of God’s anger and justice against sinners. In recent years, some Protestant churches have returned to the practice of imposing ashes.

Among the members of the Oriental Churches, Ash Wednesday is not observed. Their Lent begins on Monday before Ash Wednesday, which they call “Clean Monday” because the faithful not only cleanse their souls in penance but also wash and scrub their cooking utensils very thoroughly to remove all traces of meat and fat for the penitential season.

Lenten Cloth

An interesting symbol of penance, used from Ash Wednesday until Wednesday in Holy Week, was the “Lenten Cloth,” a common tradition in England, France, and Germany from the eleventh century on. In Germany it was also called by the popular name of “Hunger Cloth” (Hungertuch, Schmachtlappen). It was composed of an immense piece of cloth suspended in front of the sanctuary, and parted in the middle, which symbolized the outcasting of the penitent congregation from the sight of the altar. It was purple or white in color and decorated with crosses or scenes from Christ’s Passion, was drawn back only for the main parts of the Mass, and remained suspended all through Lent until the words were read in the Passion Gospel of Wednesday before Easter (Holy Week). “And the curtain of the temple was torn in the middle” (Luke 23:45).


Day of Joy

The Most Reverend Joseph R Binzer, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, vested in rose-coloured chasuble for Laetare Sunday; swiped from WikipediaThe fourth Sunday in Lent (Mid-Lent) derives its Latin name from the first word of the Mass text, Laetare Jerusalem (Rejoice, O Jerusalem). It is a day of joy within the mourning season. The altars may be decorated with flowers, organ playing is permitted, and rose-colored vestments may be worn instead of purple ones.

The historical background of this sudden joyful note during the penitential season lies in the ancient practice of the traditio symholi (“handing over” of the symbolum, the Apostolic Creed). The catechumens received the sacred text for the first time on Wednesday after the fourth Sunday in Lent. Soon afterward, the “Our Father” was also given to them. These ceremonies formed the last and decisive step toward baptism for those who had successfully stord the tests and scrutinies and proved themselves worthy to be admitted into the Church. Thus already at the beginning of the week (Laetare Sunday) the exultation of Mother Church over the approaching increase of her children (through baptism) manifested itself in the above-mentioned liturgical expressions of joy.

The Station of the fourth Sunday was held at the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (called simply “Hierusalem” in ancient books). Hence the repeated mention of Jerusalem in the liturgical texts. The holy city is taken as a type of the New Testament “Jerusalem,” the Church, who is our Mother (Galatians 4:26), giving supernatural birth to us in baptism.

In later centuries, when the original practice of the traditio on Wednesday in Mid-Lent had been discontinued (being connected with the baptismal ceremony into one rite), the true reason for the Sunday’s liturgical character of joy was forgotten, and other reasons were often given. Thus Pope Innocent III (1216) said in one of his sermons:

On this Sunday, which marks the middle of Lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart.

The Golden Rose

As a symbol of joy on Laetare Sunday the popes used to carry a golden rose in their right hand when returning from the celebration of Mass. Originally it was a natural rose, but from the eleventh century on it was made of gold. This custom seems to derive from an ancient popular spring celebration in Rome, at which people carried blossoms or flowers.

Since the fifteenth century this golden rose consists of a cluster or branch of roses wrought of pure gold and set with precious stones in brilliant workmanship by famous artists. The popes bless it every year, and often they confer it upon churches, shrines, cities, or distinguished persons as a token of esteem and paternal affection. In case of such a bestowal, a new rose is made during the subsequent year.

The meaning and symbolism of the golden rose is expressed in the prayer of blessing. It represents Christ in the shining splendor of His majesty, the “flower sprung from the root of Jesse.” From this ecclesiastical custom Laetare Sunday acquired its German name, Rosensonntag (Sunday of the Rose).

Mothering Sunday

In England a popular observance developed toward the end of the Middle Ages. On Laetare Sunday, boys and girls who lived away from home (as apprentices and servants) were given leave to go home to visit their “mother church” in which they had been baptized and had worshiped as children. They always carried with them gifts to put on the altar. This custom, of course, was based on the liturgical significance of the Church as the “New Jerusalem.” It was also the custom for the boys and girls to visit their own mother on the same day. They brought her flowers and simnel cakes (a rich plum cake; from simila, fine flour) and would do all the housework lor her. This old custom still survives in certain parts of England, and the cakes are sold in London as well as provincial towns.48 Hence the name “Mothering Sunday” and the famous old saying. “He who goes amothering finds violets in the lane.” An ancient carol entitled “Mothering Sunday” (It is the day of all the year) may be found in the Oxford Book of Carols. The tune is taken from an old German song of the fourteenth century.


Passion Sunday

The fifth Sunday in Lent, called “Passion Sunday” (Dominica Passionis) since the ninth century, occurs two weeks before Easter and inaugurates Passiontide, the final and particularly solemn preparations for the great feast. As a liturgical season, Passiontide is older than Lent, having been established by the Church as a period of fasting as early as the third century. During the first four weeks of Lent the spirit of personal penance prevailed, but these last fourteen days were devoted entirely to the meditation of Chirst’s Passion. Among the Slavic nations Passion Sunday is also called “Silent Sunday” and “Quiet Sunday.”

In the Divine Office of Passiontide the famous hymns of the Holy Cross (Vexilla regis and Pangue lingua, gloriosi laurearm) are sung or recited. Psalm 42 (Introibo) is omitted at the Mass, as is the Gloria Patri in the Divine Office. These changes, however, are probably due to reasons other than the liturgical memory of the Lord’s Passion.

On the eve of Passion Sunday the crucifixes, statues, and pictures in the churches are draped in purple cloth as a sign of mourning. This custom originated in Rome, where in ancient times the images of the papal chapel in the Vatican used to be shrouded when the deacon sang the concluding words of the Sunday Gospel, “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). The liturgical services of Passiontide are based on what happened to our Lord during the last days before His death, leading up to the mysteries of the Passion. (Mystery, in this connection, is the religious term for any episode of Christ’s life related in the Gospels. ) The Mass texts are dominated by the thought of the Just One, persecuted by His enemies, as He approaches the supreme sacrifice on Golgotha.

Feast of the Seven Sorrows

Pictorial Lives of the Saints: The Seven Dolors of the Blessed VirginOn Friday after Passion Sunday the Church celebrates the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin, commemorating events of pain and suffering in her life, as recorded in the Gospels. The devotion to the sufferings of Mary was very popular and widely practiced in medieval times. In 1423, a synod at Cologne introduced a Mass text and prescribed a feast in honor of the Seven Sorrows to be annually held in western Germany. In 1727, Pope Benedict XIII (1730) extended this feast to the whole Church.

As sequence (hymn after the Gradual of the Mass) the Church employs the famous Latin poem Stabat Mater Dolorosa, which originally was written as a prayer for private devotion by an unknown author (probably a Franciscan) in the thirteenth century. It is often attributed to the Franciscan Jacobus de Benedictis (1306), better known under his popular name Jacopone da Todi. His authorship, however, is still not certain.

The Stabat Mater has been translated from the Latin into the vernacular among all Christian nations, and is a greatly cherished Lenten hymn everywhere.

In Latin countries, especially in Spain and South America, the Feast of the Seven Sorrows is a great day of popular devotions. Thousands throng every church to visit the shrine of the Sorrowful Mother, which is radiant with many lights and richly decorated with flowers, palms, and shade-grown clusters of pale young wheat. In central Europe, where the feast is called “Friday of Sorrows” (Schmerzensfreitag) , popular devotions are held, and for dinner a soup is served consisting of seven bitter herbs.


Stations of the Cross

detail of the painting 'Christ Carrying the Cross', by Sebastiano del Piombo, early 16th century; Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe prevailing popular devotion in Lent is, quite naturally, the veneration of the suffering Lord and the meditation on His Passion and death. Both the Eastern and Western Churches practice the touching devotion of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which originated in the time of the Crusades, when the knights and pilgrims began to follow in prayerful meditation the route of Christ’s way to Calvary, according to the ancient practice of pilgrims. This devotion spread in Europe and developed into its present form through the zealous efforts of the Franciscan friars in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As custodians of the shrines in the Holy Land, the Franciscans are still entrusted with the official erection and blessing of new Stations.

Lenten Hymns

Most of the medieval Lenten songs are translations or adaptations of Latin hymns used in the Divine Office. The poem of Saint Gregory the Great (604) Audi benige conditor (Kind maker of the world, o hear) is recited during Vespers in Lent. It inspired many popular Lenten songs during the Middle Ages. In the English language alone, more than twenty translations are known.

Another hymn ascribed to Saint Gregory is Clarum decus jejunii (The sacred time of Lenten fast). An English translation, with a melody by Johann Sebastian Bach (1750) may be found in the Protestant Episcopal hymnal. Other Latin hymns include Ex more docti mystico (By mystical tradition taught), which is recited daily at the Office of the Matins; its authorship is also ascribed to Saint Gregory. O sol salutis (O Jesus, saving sun of grace), by an unknown author of the seventh or eighth century, is used at Lauds during Lent.

Passion Hymns

The most important hymns in honor of the Redeemer’s Passion are used in the liturgical office of Passiontide. From early centuries translations of these hymns have also served as popular Lenten songs. At Matins, in Passiontide, the Church intones the famous song Pangue lingua gloriosi lauream certaminis (Praise, o tongue, the victory of the glorious battle), written by Venantius Fortunatus (602), Bishop of Poitiers. This is frequently sung in choral groups all over the world.

At Vespers, in Passiontide, another hymn by Venantius Fortunatus is heard: Vexilla Regis prodeunt (The royal banners forward go). He composed it in 569, when the relics of the true cross, sent by Emperor Justinian II of East Rome, arrived at the monastery of Poitiers. Of this hymn, about fifty Enghsh translations since the fourteenth century are known.

An old German song, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O bleeding Head, so wounded), written by Paul Gerhardt in 1656, was often translated into English; it is sung both in Catholic and Protestant churches during Lent. The tune is taken from an old German folk song composed by Hans L. Hassler and published in 1601. Johann Sebastian Bach employed the melody repeatedly in his Saint Matthew Passion.

Of modern Passion hymns, the most famous is the American Negro spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” It was first published in 1899, and has since become a favorite song in many churches. The traditional melody was arranged by the Reverend Charles Winfred Douglas (1944), and made famous by the Negro tenor Roland Hayes.

There are numberless ancient English poems written in honor of Christ’s Passion which at one time probably served as church hymns but are forgotten today.



A character of mourning was always an important feature of the season of Lent. Church and state laws forbade public entertainments and festivities.03 In medieval times people would also forego all private entertainments at home that were of joyous and hilarious nature.

At the royal courts in past centuries, Lent was an official period of mourning. The monarchs and their households dressed in black, as did most of the nobility and people in general. England remained loyal to this custom even after the Reformation; Queen Elizabeth I (1603) and the ladies of her court wore black all through Lent. In Russia, up to the twentieth century, all secular music ceased in Lent. During the first and last weeks all public amusements were forbidden. Women dressed in black and laid their ornaments aside. In the rural sections of Poland, dancing and singing still cease on Ash Wednesday. Both men and women don clothes of dark and somber color; the girls relinquish their finery and multicolored ribbons, and an atmosphere of devout recollection descends over the entire village. In many countries the expressions of mourning are now restricted to the last days of Holy Week, as in the Latin nations, where women dress in black on Good Friday. In Malta, the men, too, wear black.

Easter Confession

The Church imposes on its members the duty of receiving the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion at least once a year. Though most of the faithful approach the sacraments oftener, the “Easter confession” is still singled out in various countries as a solemn rite. It is usually made in Lent, and the Church provides special services of preparation, such as annual missions for the congregations. These services are very popular in the Latin countries. They are called misiones in the Spanish-speaking parts, esercizi (spiritual exercises) in Italy, retraites (retreats) in France and Canada. The original purpose of the Lenten missions was to help people prepare for a good confession.

In Russia, the faithful kept a specially strict fast during the whole week preceding their Easter confession. Starting on Monday, they attended two services a day. On Saturday, before going to confession, they would bow deeply to each member of their household, including the servants, and utter the age-old phrase “In the name of Christ, forgive me if I have offended you.” The answer was “God will forgive you.” Thus prepared, they made their confession on Saturday, and went to Communion on Sunday. Coming home from Mass and Communion, they again faced their whole family; but this time everyone embraced them with smiles and congratulations, flowers decorated the room and the breakfast table, and the entire household shared in the joy of the one who had received his Easter Communion. Similar traditions are still observed among the other Slavic nations. It was a custom in Austria for men and boys coming home from their Easter confession to decorate their hats with flowers and distribute pretzels to all in the house while receiving congratulations and good wishes.

Lenten Food

A most interesting survival of early Christian Lenten fare is a certain form of bread familiar to all of us. The Christians in the Roman Empire made a special dough consisting of flour, salt, and water only (since fat, eggs, and milk were forbidden). They shaped it in the form of two arms crossed in prayer, to remind them that Lent was a season of penance and devotion. They called these breads “little arms” (bracellae). From the Latin word the Germans later coined the term Brezel or Prezel, from which comes our word pretzel. The oldest known picture of a pretzel may be seen in a manuscript from the fifth century in the Vatican.

All through medieval times and into the present, pretzels remained an item of Lenten food in many parts of Europe. In Germany, Austria, and Poland, they made their annual appearance on Ash Wednesday; special vendors (Brezelmann) sold them on the streets of cities and towns. People would eat them for lunch, together with a stein of their mild, home-brew beer. In Poland they were eaten in beer soup.

In the cities pretzels were distributed to the poor on many days during Lent. In parts of Austria, children wore them suspended from the palm bushes on Palm Sunday. With the end of Lent the pretzels disappeared again until the following Ash Wednesday. It was only during the last century that this German (actually, ancient Roman) bread was adopted as an all-year tidbit, and its Lenten significance all but forgotten.

In Russia, the Lenten fare is the most meager of all European nations. Rigidly observed by the faithful far into the twentieth century, the traditional fast is still kept by old people: no meat, no fish, no milk (nor anything made of milk), no butter, no eggs, no sugar or candy. The diet during this period consists of bread made with water and salt, vegetables, raisins, honey, and raw fruit.

The Polish people’s main staples in Lent include herring (smoked or cooked), and zur, a mush made of fermented rye meal and water, which serves as a base for some Lenten soups.

Among the Ukrainians, neither meat nor dairy products are used by those who keep the strict fast. During Lent meals are never cooked, only vegetables, fruit, honey, and special bread are eaten.


The week from the Wednesday before to the Wednesday after Laetare is called “Mid-Lent” in most countries. It is a time of many popular customs and traditions, most of them connected with ancient spring lore. In Germany and among the northern Slavic nations the “burial of winter” is celebrated in rural sections. In Poland children carry the effigy of a stork through the village; thus they greet the return of the bird as a harbinger of die approaching summer. In France and Canada, Mid-Lent is kept with a joyous meal and entertainment in the home. A rite performed in central and southern Europe is the decoration of wells and fountains with branches and flowers, to celebrate their final liberation from winter’s ice. Laetare Sunday is called Fontana (Sunday of Fountains) in parts of Italy because of this.

In Germany, Austria, and among the western Slavs, Laetare Sunday used to be the day of announcing the engagements of young people (Liebstatt Sonntag; Druzebna). In Bohemia the boys would send messengers to the homes of their girl friends to deliver the solemn proposal. In Austria the girls of the village lined up in front of the church after Mass; their boy friends would take them by the hand and lead them back into the house of God, and thus “propose” to them by a silent act of religious import. After having prayed together, the couple would seal their engagement with a special meal. It is a curious fact that these engagement customs were called “Valentine,” although they did not take place on Saint Valentine’s Day. The name is explained by the fact that Saint Valentine was the heavenly patron of young lovers and engaged couples.

In Ireland not only Mid-Lent but the whole season of Lent is the traditional time of matchmaking (cleamhrms). The older people visit each other’s homes to discuss the possibilities of matching their sons and daughters. Among the young generation, there is much fun poked at those not yet married. In some parts of Ireland weddings are held only on Easter Sunday, after the last preparations have been made during Lent.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Lent”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 22 January 2016. Web. 3 December 2020. <>