Friday, March 10, 2023

The Violence of Lent

Statue of a Franciscan Friar Hitting a Piñata, Alcolman, Mexico

Thanks be to God, there is a renewed interest in keeping the Great Fast of Lent more than half a century after it was all but forgotten by most Catholics when a papal decision made it optional. Done properly, fasting increases energy and the ability to focus, and when it is sanctified by prayer, it curbs vices, elevates the mind, and confers virtue and rewards. (See the traditional Preface for Lent)

But note the qualifier: when done properly. As some of us know from bitter experience, fasting can also lead to less energy, a greater obsession with the food we are not getting, and above all, irritability. To use the popular portmanteau of late, fasting can make us hangry.
I suspect that it is this side of fasting that led to some rather violent customs, including the following.
Carnival Fisticuffs
Apparently, even the thought of being hungry for forty days is enough to make some folks punchy. In certain parts of central Europe, the faithful used to bury “Carnival” – a straw figure decorated with herrings – in the predawn hours of Ash Wednesday. The effigy would be carried to the forest in a mock funeral procession and buried in the snow. Regional variations abounded. Tubingen, Germany had a Shrovetide Bear (an effigy in old trousers with fake blood in its neck) that they would put on trial, condemn, behead, and bury in the churchyard.
Spain, France, and Italy also had their versions of burying Carnival. The custom is still alive and well in Frosinone, Italy, where it is called the Radica after the large “roots” or leaves that the participants wield. On Mardi Gras, a nine-foot stucco Carnival is elaborately dressed and processed through the streets. Activities include participants swatting each other on the head with their leaves, copious wine-drinking, and an equally copious “discharge of yells, blows, and blasphemy.” The event concludes with Carnival being stripped of his finery and burned on a funeral pyre; the crowd, in the meantime, throw their leaves onto the fire “and give themselves up without restraint to the pleasures of the dance,” particularly the Saltarello.
“Carnevale” in Frosinone, Italy 
On Mardi Gras, Lithuanians used to enjoy a stage play depicting a fat man (Lasinisis) and a thin man (Kanapinis). The two wrestled and fought until the thin man (Lent) eventually threw the fat man (Carnival) to the ground and triumphantly placed his foot on him. Shrovetide is over.
Jack o’Lent
The Jack o’Lent or Jack-a-Lent is a straw effigy from fifteenth- through seventeenth-century England that is mentioned twice in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. On Ash Wednesday, the Jack o’Lent was abused and stoned as it was dragged around the parish. The effigy was eventually burned on Palm Sunday, though we suspect that frustrated fasters took potshots at it before then as well.
What we currently associate as meaningless birthday-party fun from Mexico began as good old- fashioned Italian sin-bashing during the holy season of Lent. The idea of a piñata may have come from China via Marco Polo, but Italians in the fourteenth century applied the pignatta, or “fragile pot,” to their observance of the first Sunday of Lent.
The Spanish soon picked up the custom and took it with them to the New World. The “Dance of the Piñata,” again on the first Sunday of Lent, was rich in theological meaning. The traditional gaily colored, seven-coned piñata was said to represent the Seven Deadly Sins, all of which appear attractive and beguiling. Since sin is difficult to overcome, the piñata danced on a rope in order to elude being hit, and since sin is difficult to recognize for what it is, the piñata hitter would be blindfolded. Evil, however, can be defeated by good, and so the hitter had several aids at his disposal. The first was Virtue, symbolized by his stick or bat. The hitter also had the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith helped him trust the directions shouted out by the crowd, Hope kept him persevering and directed his actions heavenward, while Charity materialized once he broke the piñata and the treats, representing divine gifts and blessings, cascaded out. The piñata also migrated to the other end of Lent, when likenesses of Judas Iscariot would be beaten on Good Friday.
Mid-Lent, a brief period that surrounds Laetare Sunday, is a time for slightly relaxing the fast and having a more joyful spirit, and it is also a time to vent one's spleen against the passing season. Variously called the “Burial of Winter,” the “Carrying out of Death,” or the “Driving Out of Death,” an effigy or puppet representing Death would be paraded through the streets and either burned or drowned. Although these customs did not always fall around the Fourth Sunday of Lent (due to regional variations or the weather), they were fixed enough in some parts of Germany to give Laetare Sunday the nickname Dead Sunday.
Zur in a Bread Bowl
Herring and Zur
Finally, at the end of the Great Fast, boys in Polish villages would bury their Lenten fare, which typically consisted of herring and zur, a mush consisting of water and fermented rye meal. On Holy Saturday afternoon, after the conclusion of the Easter Vigil Mass (then held in the morning), the lads would take either a real herring or a wooden facsimile and execute it by hanging. Then, they would smash a pot of zur against a rock or tree. Finally, the fish and pot shards were interred with unbridled glee. No longer would the hungry youth have to eat these tiresome dishes--at least not until next Lent.

For more information on most of these customs, see Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Easter Book (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954) and The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958)

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