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February 15th, 2004

With Christmas, post-Christmas sales and Valentine’s Day all behind us, it’s time for the next season in the annual consumption calendar, so I wasn’t surprised to see Easter Eggs on sale when I went grocery-shopping today. I do however, have a couple of questions for historically-minded readers.

First, while I know that it’s traditional to have a day of excess at Mardi Gras, followed by forty days of feasting in Lent, and then another blowout at Easter, and that this festival of consumption follows an earlier Christian tradition, I have the feeling that there has been a subtle change somewhere along the line – can anyone tell me what it is?

Second, where does the name Lent come from? Is this considered a particularly auspicious time for adding to your consumer debt, or is that just a piece of folk etymology?

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  1. February 15th, 2004 at 15:10 | #1

    I suspect but do not actually know that “Lent” derives from Latin words to do with “slow”.

    The northern hemisphere agricultural thing about carnival (literally, farewell meat) was that it was with the approach of spring that you ran low on stored foodstuffs of reasonable freshness. It then became impractical to keep surplus animals going, so that was when you used it or lost it. After that, Lent was a coasting period until the first new fresh food was available.

    The change has been twofold: better means of preservation and/or trading with other climatic zones came in (with more surpluses anyway); and we here in Australia have different seasons anyway. It’s interesting to read what Trollope has to say on the point of living standards and exporting food, in his book(s) on Australia written in the late 1870s when he visited for a family wedding. Unfortunately my copy omits the New Zealand material, that he obtained from secondary sources, and I’m ever more regretful that I didn’t pick up his South Africa companion volume when I had the chance, just because it was slightly damaged.

  2. February 15th, 2004 at 15:11 | #2

    John, it should be 40 days of fasting, not feasting. I think this comes from the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness (desert).

  3. Geoff Honnor
    February 15th, 2004 at 16:24 | #3

    Lent is an Anglo Saxon descriptor for the Latin Quadragesima – forty days or the fortieth day. It’s been used in Christianity since the 3rd or 4th century AD to describe the commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent in self-reflection in the wilderness. These days you’d presumably go to an expensive health spa, eat designer seaweed and meditate upon the insightful spiritual musings of the Dalai Lama – or Lee Iacocca perhaps.

    Lent is characterised by self-denial – giving things up for Lent was a standard part of my Catholic upbringing – and, supposedly, reflection on Christ’s life, etc.

    Mardi Gras – or Fat Tuesday – is a useful descriptor of a Pre-Lenten stock-up prior to the 40 lean days that stretched to Easter.

    Easter eggs, by the way, originally represented renewal and re-birth.

  4. warbo
    February 15th, 2004 at 18:39 | #4

    According to the Shorter OED, the word derives from a Germanic word for spring (the season) – e.g. lente in Dutch, Lenz in German – which in turn comes from a Germanic base meaning ‘long’, refering to the lengthening of the days in spring.

    As usual, folk etymology is way off the mark.

  5. John
    February 15th, 2004 at 19:15 | #5

    This post was intended ironically (the point being the substitution of “feasting” for “fasting”), but the responses have been quite informative, and I’ve benefited from reading them.

  6. February 16th, 2004 at 13:02 | #6

    not to mention the fact that the “shorter” OED is actually quite long…well if you read it cover to cover…

  7. ANdrew
    February 16th, 2004 at 22:00 | #7


    Isn’t that what you use to take creases out of your shirtys?

  8. Clively
    February 17th, 2004 at 13:18 | #8

    You didn’t see Easter eggs on sale until


    Both hot cross buns & easter eggs have featured

    in local (Melbourne) Coles supermarkets since

    early/mid January, at least.

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