When you think of the Lenten season in the United States, a few traditions come to mind: Not eating meat on Fridays, giving something up, or even doing something extra as a reminder that this is a holy time of year. While these traditions are all very familiar to us here in the U.S., all over the world, different people and different cultures are observing Lent in their own ways.
In some nations, it is customary to fast intensively during Lent. For some Catholics in the Middle East, their fasting goes beyond not eating meat on Fridays. They fast throughout Lent, and in addition to meat also abstain from eating dairy, eggs, fish, olive oil, and alcohol. In Russia, Christians also have an expansive fast where they give up all animal products and avoid oil and wine on weekdays.
Beyond expansive fasting, some countries celebrate Lent with special festivities. In Germany, old Christmas trees are burned to welcome both Lent and spring. In some German villages, they also celebrate with elaborate processions and reenactments of the Passion. Germans also refer to Holy Thursday as Green Thursday and celebrate by eating green foods for the day, especially salads and spinach. The Danes’ traditional celebration before Lent is called “Fastelavn” and consists of eating many different of jam-filled pastries and children trying to break open a barrel full of candy. The first kids who successfully smash it open are named “Cat King” and “Cat Queen.” In India, the three days leading up to Lent are a celebration with music, dancing, and feasting all culminating in Mass. The celebrations are so extensive that Hindu and Muslim members of the community often join in. In Mexico, the fourth Friday of Lent is a special celebration called “La Samaritana”. On this day people hand out water, fruit, and ice cream in honor of the Samaritan woman who Jesus met at the well and who gave Him water.
Many different nations also celebrate the Lenten season with various kinds of traditional foods. While it is tradition in some cultures to eat pancakes on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Canada they add their own twist by baking items into the pancakes. A person who finds a coin in their pancake will be rich, and the one who finds a ring will get married. In Sweden, Catholics also have pancakes on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but they do not bake anything into the pancakes; instead they eat pea soup with them. In Ireland, since Catholics do not eat meat on Friday, it is tradition to eat fish soup on Friday. The British Isles also have a famous Lenten tradition where people eat hot cross buns to symbolize the cross that Jesus suffered on.
Despite the vast differences in celebrations, fasts, and foods around the world, all of the ways people commemorate Lent share a similar purpose. All are meant to help Catholics prepare themselves for the Easter Triduum, the most important time in the liturgical year.