What is Shrovetide or Shrove Tuesday?
Although the terms Mardi Gras or Carnivale are often associated with raucous, wild, over-the-top, and immoral festivities in cities such as New Orleans, this was not the intent of the pre-Lenten period of Shrovetide. In fact the word ‘Carnivale’ itself did not originally mean what we today think of as a carnival but was derived from the Latin phrase “carne levare” which means “taking away of flesh.” The phrase refers both to the literal act of not consuming meat during all of Lent as was the custom in the Roman Catholic Church in the past and the figurative casting off of the flesh in the penitential fasting and self-denial sacrifices during Lent.
The term Shrovetide refers to the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday though some countries observe the Shrovetide period beginning sooner than Monday; Shrove Tuesday of course refers specifically to the day before Ash Wednesday. Shrovetide is not an official liturgical season but has been a tradition among Catholics since the Middle Ages.
Shrovetide – A Time for Confession
The term comes from a Middle English word, “Shrive,” which means “to confess.” Though the tradition is not as popular as it was in the Middle Ages, the custom of Shrovetide is to go to confession just before Lent so as to begin the season in a fresh, spiritually clean state.
Regarding this practice, the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to the Ecclesiastical Institutes" translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric about A.D. 1000: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance].”
Other Shrovetide Customs
Food – The consumption of rich food on Shrove Tuesday has been a part of the Shrovetide customs for centuries. However, it had less to do with eating rich food in celebration and more to do with using up the foods that could not be eaten during Lent. Today, Roman Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, in the past Lenten fasting was more similar to the fasting customs of the modern Eastern Catholic Church, and Roman Catholics throughout the Middle Ages did not eat foods such as fats and eggs during all of Lent. During Shrovetide, Catholics in England and throughout Europe would make pancakes and similar foods to use up oil, butter, and eggs before Lent began (which is why this Tuesday is sometimes also referred to as 'Pancake Tuesday' or 'Pancake Day' in certain places). In fact the ‘fat’ in the term Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) is in reference to the fats used in food on that Tuesday for the final time until Easter.
Parties and Plays – Shrovetide has often been seen as a time for a last celebration before the somber season of Lent commences. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, masques and plays were popular on Shrove Tuesday, as were games and sport. Such festivities are seen as an acceptable last celebrations before entering the subdued and solemn season of Lent provided they do not get out of hand or promote sinfulness.
Plenary Indulgences – According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “By a special constitution addressed by Benedict XIV to the archbishops and bishops of the Papal States, and headed "Super Bacchanalibus", a plenary indulgence was granted in 1747 to those who took part in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which was to be carried out daily for three days during the carnival season.”