Septuagesima was also, in the early Church, the beginning of the Lenten fast, since according to the old liturgical calendar, Thursdays and Saturdays, in addition to Sundays, were days that Christians would not fast.
“Just as Lent today begins 46 days before Easter, since Sundays are never a day of fasting, so, in the early Church, Saturdays and Thursdays were considered fast-free days. In order to fit in 40 days of fasting before Easter, therefore, the fast had to start two weeks earlier than it does today,” Catholic author Scott P. Richert noted in a 2018 article for ThoughtCo.
Farewell to meat, cheese, fun
Septuagesima Sunday traditionally kicks off a season known by various names — Septuagesima-tide, or Carnival (typically the name for more worldly celebrations during this time), or Shrove-Tide (particularly in Anglican traditions). The point of the season, Bradley said, is to prepare well for Lent.
“St. Paul VI is said to have described the progressive move toward Lent in Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, like church bells that call the faithful to worship, 15, 10, and 5 minutes before Mass,” Bradley said.
“Each week in the lead-up to Lent is a nudge that the great and holy fast is around the corner, and our preparations for this should intensify.”
These days were also practical for Christians in pre-refrigeration days — they would use the pre-Lenten season to use up the rich, perishable foods such as meat and cheese that they had in their house before Lent began, and the unused foods would spoil, Michael P. Foley, Catholic author and associate professor of patristics at Baylor University, noted in a 2011 article.
Days of preparation for Lent are also found outside the Roman liturgical traditions, Bradley said.
“For example, in the East Syrian liturgy (as celebrated by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), the week before Septuagesima is marked by Moonnu Nombu, which recalls Jonah remaining three days in the belly of the whale. Moonnu Nombu is a short, three-day fast, in preparation for the coming major fast of Lent.”
In Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, they even have designated “meatfare” and “cheesefare” Sundays, which focus on clearing the house of meats and dairy, respectively.
“Similarly, in Russia and other Slavic countries the week before Lent is called ‘Butter Week’; in Poland it is called ‘Fat Days,’” Foley noted.
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Carnival is the term for the more festive, wordly events associated with the pre-Lenten season and is celebrated throughout the world with parades, parties, and feasts. Still, the word itself is Catholic in origin, coming from Latin “carnem levare” (carnelevarium), which means “withdrawal” or “removal” of meat, according to “The Easter Book” by Father Francis X. Weiser, SJ.
The intensity of some Carnival celebrations comes from the intensity of the fasting of old, which was much more restrictive than it is today, Weiser noted.
“The intensity of this urge, however, should not be judged to stem from the mild Lenten laws of today but from the strict and harsh observance of ancient times, which makes modern man shiver at the mere knowledge of its details. No wonder the good people of past centuries felt entitled to ‘have a good time’ before they started on their awesome fast,” he said.
“Carnival music” has Spanish, Portuguese, Native American, and African influences and is typically associated with the regions of the Caribbean and Brazil, which has some of the largest Carnival celebrations in the world.
“Though it varies from country to country, Carnival music has a common origin in bidding a fond farewell to fun before the 40-day fast of Lent,” Foley noted.
One last chance: Mardi Gras