Like much of American culture, there is a disconnection between celebrations and their roots. I find this most apparent in the nation’s observation of religious holidays. Perhaps one of the most significant is Mardi Gras, also known as Carnival. We praise Tuesday as a great celebration, an expression of Spring Fever, a dance to the end of Winter. But we have abandoned why we eat and drink so well.
The old way of doing things is that this Dionysian abandon is to forget ourselves one last time before we begin the all-to-personal self-critique the next day. We shout and sing and dance and make so much noise because we want to abandon ourselves, to enjoy ecstasy, from the Greek “to be out of one’s current state.” And our current, ultimate state is our solitary existence.
Fat Tuesday. Eat as much as you can. Do it together. Make the meal. Prepare the table. Spare no expense. Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Is it no wonder why so many cultures eat bread the day before Lent? The Polish Pączki, the German Fasnacht, the English-influenced pancake breakfast of Shrove Tuesday, the Lithuanian spurgos, the Danish Fastelavnsbolle. We are getting rid of the extra dough. Carneval, from the Latin for “Goodbye, meat!” reminds us more explicitly.
We must eat all the things. For for forty days, we will abstain. We will become vegetarians of sorts. The food will not last until Easter. We must eat it now so let us eat it altogether, all together. Let us share one another. Let us raise our glasses (and, for some, our shirts) to our good health. Eat, drink, and be merry! For tomorrow, we die.
But we don’t die – at least, not most of us. But we are reminded that we will. And we will die alone. That for all the power and glory we felt the night before, the hangover we nurse now is the reverse side of the coin of being human – all too human. In our American culture, we remember the fat (and we do it well), but we forget the failure.
Why is it that Americans will be more than happy to appropriate religious holidays, but not religious seasons? Is a secular Lent so wrong? Is it so un-American to have a season of contrition and reflection? Is our hubris so secure and innate that, in the name of nationalism, we cannot dare to look at our failings and brittleness? And many Evangelicals, too, have abandoned Lent. They cannot stand not to fill the air with the din of praise. Shut up. Be silent for once. All of us, each of us, shut up. Just shut the fuck up.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the coming disaster. It is the single bell that rings for our coming deaths, a day that each of us, regardless of tradition, status, belief, or creed, will encounter. There is no fire and brimstone on Ash Wednesday. The fire is long gone. The heat has dissipated. What we have built up has burned to the ground. There is only ash.
Well, then, if there will be only ash tomorrow, then fill my glass! Feed me doughnuts! Let us dance and abandon ourselves! Because when dawn breaks tomorrow, we will curse ourselves for our foolishness. We shouldn’t have done that. But yes, we should have. We could not have done anything else. Would you please speak a little softer? Would you please turn off that light? I’m moving a little slow this morning.
And this is Lent, our slow time, from the Latin “lente,” slowly. But until tomorrow, let us see who indeed can eat the most doughnuts the fastest. I’ll race you.