Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Pre-Lent



The liturgical preparation for the greatest feast of Christianity – Easter – proceeds in five periods of penitential character. As the observance of this preparation approaches the feast, the penitential note grows progressively deeper and stricter. The first period is the season of pre-Lent, from Septuagesima Sunday to Ash Wednesday; the second extends from Ash Wednesday to Passion Sunday; the third comprises Passion Week; the fourth includes the days of Holy Week up to Wednesday; the fifth consists in the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday). In these three days, which are devoted entirely to the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, the penitential observance reaches its peak, until it ends (at the Easter Vigil) in the glorious and joyful celebration of the Resurrection.


-gesima sundaysThe three Sundays preceding Lent are called Septuagesima (seventieth), Sexagesima (sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth). Actually they are not the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days before Easter, as their names would indicate. These titles seem to have been arbitrarily chosen for the sake of round numbers, in keeping with the much older term of Quadragesima (fortieth), which denotes the first Sunday of Lent.

This preparatory time of pre-Lent in the Latin Church was suggested by the practice of the Byzantine Church, which started its great fast earlier, because their “forty days” did not include Saturdays. Saint Maximus (465), Bishop of Turin, mentioned the practice in one of his sermons. It is a pious custom, he said, to keep a fast of devotion (not of obligation) before the start of Lent.

The immediate occasion, however, for introducing the liturgical observance of pre-Lent seems to have been the frequent public calamities of the sixth century, especially the invasion of the Langobards, who devastated Italy and threatened Rome. This danger prompted the pope (Pelagius I or John III) to set these weeks (during which many people already fasted) aside for a general penitential observance. The liturgical texts of the Sunday Masses still exhibit traces of this origin.

Since the time of danger and need endured through many years, the celebration became established in Rome as a traditional annual observance. From Rome it spread to other parts of the Western Church. We find the pre-Lenten Sundays mentioned as early as 541, in the fourth Council of Orleans.

The penitential character of pre-Lent is usually motivated by the thought of “preparing for Lent.” Fasting was never prescribed but was highly recommended in past centuries.


At the time of Pope Saint Gregory I (604) the Masses of the pre-Lent Sundays were already celebrated in Rome with the same liturgical texts that are used today. The spirit of this season is one of penance, devotion, and atonement, the liturgical texts and rules reflecting this character. The Gloria is omitted in the Mass, the Te Deum in the Divine Office, purple vestments are worn, and the altars may no longer be decorated with flowers.

The Mass prayers of Septuagesima Sunday reflect most clearly the anguished cry for the Lord’s help that rose from the heart of Saint Gregory and his people at sight of the misery and desolation that filled all Italy and threatened Rome:

The groans of death surrounded me, the sorrows of hell encompassed me: and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice from his holy temple. (Psalms 17. Introit)

O Lord, we beseech thee, graciously hear the prayers of thy people, that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins, may for the glory of thy name be mercifully delivered. (Collect)

Sexagesima Sunday still bears the character of its original celebration in honor of Saint Paul. It probably was an annual feast on January 25 (Translation of Saint Paul) which, being transferred to this Sunday, perpetuated the Roman celebration and extended it to the whole Church. The Mass text is a combination of penitential prayers with notes of rejoicing in honor of the Apostle of the Gentiles.

The Mass prayers of Quinquagesima Sunday exhibit the note of penance and remind us of the approaching obligatory fast. In the Tractus of the Mass the Church breaks out in a jubilant prayer of praise, as if assured that her fervent appeals for God’s help during the season of pre-Lent had been mercifully heard and heeded by the Lord.

Fast and Penance

In the Latin Church many priests and people, as well as the religious, fasted voluntarily during the latter part of pre-Lent, especially from Quinquagesima Sunday on.10 In the Byzantine Church this fasting was officially regulated from early times. They started abstaining from meat on Sexagesima, which is therefore called “Meatless” (apokreo in Greek; miasopust, in Slavic). With Quinquagesima the Eastern Church began (and still begins) the abstinence from butter, cheese, milk, and eggs. Thus in eastern Europe that day is called “Cheeseless Sunday” (syropust).

In preparation for Lent the faithful in medieval times used to go to confession on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. From this practice, that day became known as “Shrove Tuesday” (the day on which people are shriven from sins).


Alleluia, or hallelujah, is one of the few Hebrew words adopted by the Christian Church from apostolic times. It means “Praise the Lord!”

On Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday (the third Sunday before Lent) this ancient and hallowed exclamation of joy and praise in the Christian liturgy is officially discontinued in the Western Church to signify the approach of the solemn season of Lent. According to the regulation of Pope Alexander II (1073) the Alleluia is sung twice after the prayers of the Divine Office, and not heard again till the solemn vigil service of Easter, when it once more is used as a glorious proclamation of Easter joy. The Greek Church, however, still retains the Alleluia even in Lent.

Usage of the Word

Saint John the Evangelist mentioned alleluia in his Apocalypse (19, 1-6), and the early Church accepted the word from the beginning. From Jerusalem the custom of using it spread with the expanding Church into all nations. It is interesting to note that nowhere and at no time was any effort made to translate it into the vernacular, as Saint Isidore of Seville (636) mentioned in his writings. He explains this by the reverence for the hallowed traditions of the apostolic Church.

In addition to the official liturgy, as early as the third century the Christian writer Tertullian said in his treatise on prayer that the faithful of his time used to insert many alleluias in their private devotions. Saint Jerome (420) praised the pious farmers and tradesmen who used to sing it at their toil, and the mothers who taught their babies to pronounce “alleluia” before any other word.

In the Roman Empire the Alleluia became the favorite prayerful song of oarsmen and navigators. Saint Augustine (430) alluded to this custom, saying, “Let the Alleluia be our sweet rowingsong!” And some years later, the Roman poet and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris (480) described how the river banks and shores of Gaul resounded with the Alleluia song of the rowing boatmen. Even the Roman soldiers fighting against pagan barbarians used it as battle cry and war song. Saint Bede the Venerable (735), in his history of England, reported such an “Alleluia victory” won by the Christian Bretons over the Picts and Scots in 429.

Finally, the expression “Alleluia, the Lord is risen” became the general greeting of Christians in early medieval times on the Feast of the Resurrection. Apart from these popular usages the Alleluia has at all times found its primary and most meaningful application in the official liturgy. In the early centuries, the Roman Church used it only during Easter time, but it soon spread over the rest of the ecclesiastical year, except of course, during Lent. It used to be sung even at funerals and burial Masses as an expression of the conviction that for a true Christian the day of death was actually the birthday of eternal life, a day of joy. 20 The Eastern Churches have preserved this custom in their Masses for the dead up to now.

Farewell Customs

The depositio (discontinuance) of the Alleluia on the eve of Septuagesima assumed in medieval times a solemn and emotional note of saying farewell to the beloved song. Despite the fact that Pope Alexander II had ordered a very simple and somber way of “deposing” the Alleluia, a variety of farewell customs prevailed in many countries up to the sixteenth century. They were inspired by the sentiment which Bishop William Duranti (1296) voiced in his commentaries on the Divine Office: “We part from the Alleluia as from a beloved friend, whom we embrace many times and kiss on mouth, head and hand, before we leave him.”

The liturgical office on the eve of Septuagesima was performed in many churches with special solemnity, and alleluias were freely inserted in the sacred text, even to the number of twenty-eight final alleluias in the church of Auxerre in France. This custom also inspired some tender poems which were sung or recited during Vespers in honor of the sacred word. The best known of these hymns is, Alleluia, dulce carmen (Alleluia, Song of Gladness), composed by an unknown author of the tenth century. It was translated into English by John Mason Neale (1866) and may be found in the official hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

In some French churches the custom developed in ancient times of allowing the congregation to take part in the celebration of a quasi-liturgical farewell ceremony. The clergy abstained from any role in this popular service. Choirboys officiated in their stead at what was called “Burial of the Alleluia” performed the Saturday afternoon before Septuagesima Sunday. We find a description of it in the fifteenth-century statute book of the church of Toul:

On Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday all choir boys gather in the sacristy during the prayer of the None, to prepare for the burial of the Alleluia. After the last Benedicamus [i.e., at the end of the service] they march in procession, with crosses, tapers, holy water and censers; and they carry a coffin, as in a funeral. Thus they proceed through the aisle, moaning and mourning, until they reach the cloister. There they bury the coffin; they sprinkle it with holy water and incense it; whereupon they return to the sacristy by the same way.

In Paris, a straw figure bearing in golden letters the inscription “Alleluia” was carried out of the choir at the end of the service and burned in the church yard.

With the exception of these quaint aberrations, however, the farewell to alleluia in most countries was an appropriate addition to the official ceremonies of the liturgy. The special texts (hymns, responsories, antiphons) used on that occasion were taken mostly from Holy Scripture, and are filled with pious sentiments of devotion, like the following unusual personification collected from a farewell service of the Mozarabic liturgy of Spain (ninth or tenth century):

Stay with us today, Alleluia,
And tomorrow thou shalt part.
When the morning rises,
Thou shalt go thy way.
Alleluia, alleluia.

The mountains and hills shall rejoice, Alleluia,
While they await thy glory.
Thou goest, Alleluia; may thy way be blessed,
Until thou shalt return with joy.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Thus the Alleluia is sung for the last time and not heard again until it suddenly bursts into glory during the Mass of the Easter Vigil when the celebrant intones this sacred ‘word’ after the Epistle, repeating it three times, as a jubilant herald of the Resurrection of Christ.


Just as many Christmas customs and similar observances had their origin in pre-Christian times, so, too, some of the popular traditions of Lent and Easter date back to ancient nature rites. The “spring lore” of the Indo-European races is their source in this case. From Yule to the summer solstice (which was celebrated on June 24), a continuous tradition of spring rites and symbolic fertility cults was practiced among our forefathers.

The Fight against Winter

These activities began at the winter solstice, when the day was shortest in the year, and lasted until April or May. In order to frighten the demons of winter away, and at the same time to hide their own identity, the participants in this “fight” were disguised in wild and strange costumes. Wearing masks of horrible size and shape, they ran shouting and screaming through the open spaces around their homes.

mummers paradeMummers and carnival masquerades of later times and the uproarious celebrations on various days between Christmas and Easter have their origin in this “fight.” In southern Germany, in Austria, and among the Slavic nations such mummers (Perchten) parades are still held every year. Dressed in ancient costumes Man and Nature 161 and masks, the paraders follow traditional routes, accompanied by the loud and discordant noise of drums, cowbells, crude trumpets, and the cracking of whips or the shooting of mortars (Böller).

Another rite of “frightening the winter away” was the setting of fires between Yule and May. Attached to wooden rings or wheels, brands were sent rolling down the meadows from the hilltops. In southern Germany the first Sunday of Lent is still called Brandsonntag (Fire Sunday), when many such burning wheels move, sparkling in the dark night, on the hillsides and from the mountain peaks. In France the same Sunday was called Fete des brandons (Feast of Torches) because on that day young people ran through the streets with firebrands to chase the winter away.

As the spring advanced and days grew warmer, the people celebrated “winter’s burial.” Sometimes with mock sadness, more often, however, with wild and joyous abandon, they dragged a ragged straw figure, often of giant size, through the village, accompanied by a large crowd of “mourners” in masquerade. Popular funeral rites were held, and the huge figure, dressed in white to symbolize the snow, was either buried or “executed” by quartering, drowning, burning, or hanging, with the lusty approval and acclaim of the onlookers. In the sixteenth century they started in many places to stuff the figure with powder and fireworks, so that the heat of the flames would make it explode with a thunderous crash.

Such burials of winter are still held in many countries. Very often, however, the ceremony has come to be interpreted as the “burial of carnival,” or the “burning of Judas” on Holy Saturday.

The climax of these rites was the play depicting “winter’s defeat.” The actors, impersonating with appropriate dress the figures of summer and winter, would carry on a verbal battle in which winter, defeated, conceded the victory to summer.

Fertility Rites

While the struggle between summer and winter went on (December to April), many symbolic celebrations were held to demonstrate how anxious people were for the coming warm season and to insure as well the blessings of fertility (the important second part of these ancient rites).

The joy over the appearance of new plants and flowers in spring prompted man to attribute to them a special power of protection and healing. People planted special spring flower gardens; they brought branches of early-blossoming plants, like pussy willows, into their homes; they decorated themselves and their living rooms with wreaths of flowers and clusters of blossoms. A striking Christian variation of these nature rites was the medieval custom of planting “Mary gardens,” which were made up of all the flowers and herbs that are ascribed by love and legend as a special tribute to the Blessed Virgin. This charming tradition has recently been revived in many places.

Another fertility rite was the symbolic “plowing” of the earth in early spring, with a real plow or a wooden log, to make the soil fertile. It was done with elaborate ceremonies, often connected with a mummers’ parade. In Germany and eastern Europe it became a part of the carnival celebration (Blochziehen). In England it was held in January, and the Monday after Epiphany (January 6) acquired from this ancient custom the name “Ploughmonday.” The original fertility cult is still preserved in the superstition that maidens who draw the plow or sit on it or touch it will soon be married and will be blessed with healthy offspring.

Chemistry and physics as we know them, of course, were a mystery to our pre-Christian forefathers. From constant observation, however, they knew only too well the effects of rain, or lack of rain, on vegetation and life. Water, therefore, assumed in their minds a magic role of producing fertility, health, and new life. This is the basis of the many ancient “water rites.” It was the fashion among all nations of Europe to sprinkle women and girls with water, thus to insure them the blessings of fertility and good health. This custom is still preserved in European countries, where during carnival time or at Easter the boys sprinkle or splash water on the girls, and the girls retaliate on the following day. In cities perfume is often used instead of water.

In the Middle Ages the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection became the favorite time for such ancient water rites. In many parts of central and eastern Europe, and also in France, girls and women wash their faces in brooks and rivers on Easter Sunday morning (Osterwaschen). It is a widespread legend that on Easter Day all running water is especially blessed because the Risen Lord sanctified all life-giving elements and bestowed upon them special powers for the one great day of His resurrection.

Similar customs prevail in French Canada, where people wash themselves with water taken from rivers or fountains on Easter Sunday. They also preserve it in bottles, and it is said to remain fresh until the following Easter, being credited with great healing powers. In Germany and Austria bridegroom and bride sprinkle each other with such water before going to church on their wedding day. Domestic animals, too, are believed to benefit from the power of Easter water. In many parts of Europe farmers sprinkle them with water drawn from brooks or springs during Easter night. In some sections of Germany horses are ridden into a river on Easter Sunday to obtain for them protection and good health. Irish legends attribute to water fetched on Easter Day magic powers against witches and evil spirits.

Among the Slavic nations the men in rural districts will rise at midnight on Holy Thursday and walk to the nearest brook to wash themselves. They do this in honor and imitation of Christ who, according to an old Oriental legend, fell into the river Cedron on His way to the Passion.

The Church has provided a Christian version of the ancient water rite by blessing and distributing Easter water on Holy Saturday, thus elevating the pre-Christian symbolism of nature into a Christian sacramental. It is customary for millions the world over to obtain for their households the Easter water blessed on Holy Saturday.

Another rite of fertility was the touch with the “rod of life” (Lebensrute). A few branches were broken from a young bush, and any maiden touched or hit by this rod was believed to obtain the blessings of health and fertility. This symbolism was incorporated in the mysteries of the Roman goddess Libera, in which young matrons were initiated into childbearing and motherhood by a ritual of flagellation to insure fertility.

All through Europe this custom is found at carnival time or Eastertide. Girls and women are tapped with leaved rods or pussy willow branches, which are often decorated with flowers and ribbons. A familiar relic of this tradition seems to be the modern practice of throwing the bridal bouquet at weddings. It reveals its ancient symbolism by the claim that the girl who catches the bouquet (thus being touched by the rod of life) will be the next one to marry.

The greater part of the pre-Christian usage and meaning of the rod of life was transferred in medieval times to the Christian symbolism of the “palms” which the Church blesses on Palm Sunday.

Spring Festival

When the victory of spring was fully won and winter had disappeared, our forefathers used to celebrate by dancing around a gaily decorated tree (maypole), cleared of branches except on its top. The tree itself was a symbol of nature’s triumph, a tribute to the power of new life. 39 In medieval times maypoles were erected in every community. In rural towns of the Austrian Tyrol the inhabitants still observe the appealing custom of planting a maypole, at any time of the year, in front of houses where newly wed couples live; there the gay symbol remains until the night after the birth of the first child, when the young men of the village silently take it down.

The crowning of the “May Queen” is another ancient rite which has been practiced by Indo-European peoples for thousands of years. One of the girls, chosen by a vote of young men, was led in procession to the place of the spring festival, where she presided over the celebration. She was often accompanied by a young man who was called the “May King.” Both were dressed in festive robes, wore wreaths of flowers on their heads, and held in their hands a wooden scepter (the rod of life) adorned with flowers and ribbons.

The final victory over winter was also celebrated with the setting of “bonfires” on hills and mountain peaks in all countries of northern Europe during pre-Christian times. The Easter fires and Saint John’s fires are still a cherished part of the annual folklore in many sections, especially the Alpine provinces.

Thus the religious celebration of the sacred seasons of Lent and Easter is accompanied by many popular traditions of ancient origin which have added a charming touch to the supernatural meanings of the season. Under the guiding inspiration of the Church a popular observance was molded, in which most of the natural customs were ennobled through the spiritual power of Christianity.



In ancient times, when the law of abstinence was much stricter and included many other foods besides meat, the clergy and a good number of the laity started abstaining progressively during the pre-Lenten season, until they entered the complete fast on Ash Wednesday. After Quinquagesima (the Sunday before Lent) this voluntary fasting began with abstinence from meat; consequently, this Sunday was called Dominica Carnevala from the Latin carnem levare (carnelevarium) , which means “withdrawal” or “removal” of meat.

The German word for this time of carnival is Fassnacht, or Fasching, which probably comes from the ancient vasen (“running around crazily”). It was adopted by the Slavic nations (as fasiangy) and by the Hungarians (as farsang). Another German word of later origin is Fastnacht (Eve of the Fast). The Lithuanians call the carnival season Uzgavenes (Pre-Lent).

Carnival celebrations are still held in most countries of central and western Europe and among the Latin nations of Europe and America.

Carnival Foods

king cakeThe primary reason for carnival celebrations is the feasting, rejoicing, and reveling before the imminent season of fast and abstinence. It is a trait of human nature to anticipate approaching privations by greater or lesser excesses. The intensity of this urge, however, should not be judged from the mild Lenten laws of today, but from the strict and harsh observance of ancient times, which makes modern man shiver at the mere knowledge of its details. No wonder the good people of past centuries felt entitled to “have a good time” before they started on their awesome fast.

Another reason for the feasting, and a very practical one, was the necessity for finishing those foods which could not be eaten during Lent, and which, in fact, could not even be kept in homes during the fast – meat, butter, cheese, milk, eggs, fats, and bacon. This meant an increased consumption of rich foods and pastries the week before Ash Wednesday. Hence have come the names “Fat Tuesday” (Fetter Dienstag in German; Mardi gras in French); “Butter Week” (Sedmica syrnaja) in Russia and other Slavic countries; and “Fat Days” (Tluste Dni) in Poland.

In the northern counties of England, the Monday of carnival week is “Collop Monday” (from the Latin colpones, cut pieces). Collops consist of sliced meat or bacon, mixed with eggs, and fried in butter. In Scotland people eat “Crowdie,” a kind of porridge cooked with butter and milk. On Tuesday, England enjoys her famous Shrove Tuesday pancakes. The Germans have pastries called Fassnachtstollen, the Austrians Faschingskrapfen.

Fastelavnsboller are sold in Norway in great quantities during carnival time. Resembling our muffins, these “bollers” are sold throughout the whole year plain, but at carnival time they are filled with whipped cream and coated with sugar and frosting.

Russia, before the Soviet regime, attached a national and strictly regulated importance to the several seasons of carnival, Lent, and Easter, Carnival or “Butter Week” was a general holiday. As in the western countries, there are pre-Christian relics in the Russian festival too. In the country districts a fantastic figure called Masslianitsa (Butter Goddess) is gaily decorated and driven about on a sledge while the peasants sing special songs and horovode (folk choruses). At the end of the week it is burned, and a formal farewell is bidden to pleasure until Easter. Rich but unsweetened pancakes (blinni) are served in every household at carnival time.

Carnival Frolics

mardi gras maskSince carnival is a time of feasting and reveling, it was only natural that many elements of the pre- Christian spring lore should have become part of the celebration. Lent excluded the boisterous practices of mumming and masquerading, so what better time could be found for it than the gay days of the carnival? All the familiar features of our modern carnival celebrations are firmly rooted in a tradition that actually dates from about the fourteenth century.

The pre-Christian element of the carnival frolics in the Latin countries seems to be a growth of the Roman Saturnalia, a pagan feast in honor of the field god Saturnus held annually in December. Northern countries have adopted customs and rites from the much older Indo-European spring lore.

The popes, as temporal rulers of their state, acknowledged the carnival practice in Rome by regulating its observance, correcting its abuses, and providing entertainment for the masses. Paul II (1471) started the famous horse races which gave the name Corso to one of Rome’s ancient streets, the former Via Lata (broad street). He also introduced the carnival pageants for which the Holy City was famous. Within the past few centuries other cities, too, have developed their own special features of carnival celebration, like the famed carnival of Cologne, the parade of gondolas in Venice, the carnival balls of Vienna, the floats and parades in the cities of South America, and the mummers parade in Philadelphia. The best-known celebration of carnival in America is the famous Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which takes its name from the day on which it is annually held.

Forty Hours’ Devotion

In order to encourage the faithful to atone in prayer and penance for the many excesses and scandals committed at carnival time, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1748, instituted a special devotion for the three days preceding Lent, called “Forty Hours of Carnival,” which is held in many churches of Europe and America, in places where carnival frolics are of general and long-standing tradition. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed all day Monday and Tuesday, and devotions are held in the evening, followed by the Eucharistic Benediction.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Pre-Lent”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 27 January 2016. Web. 25 November 2020. <>