There are several “new” traditions that our families can adopt in order to bring more meaning to Lent. As we will see, these traditions are really quite old, but worth saving. Even though Lent has already begun, there is still time to incorporate these practices into your family traditions, and include them every year.
Begin your Lenten Fast gradually over the three weeks before Lent
In the traditional liturgical calendar, the time from six weeks after the Epiphany to Ash Wednesday is a time for preparation for Lent. Rather than having a sudden change, as we do in modern times, from feast to famine, the earlier church practices exemplified a gradual removal of fats, sweets, dairy, and meat during those weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday.
This made sense in an agrarian society where nothing would be wasted. For example, the King Cake, which is traditionally served on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), was traditionally made on the Feast of the Epiphany and served over the course of several days. The idea of Carnival (from the Latin carne “meat” + vale “farewell”) was only the grand finale in a series of goodbyes to eggs, dairy, and sugar from the time of Epiphany forward.
In my old 1962 Missal, the Sundays preceding Ash Wednesday were numbered to countdown the days until Lent. After the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, we see Septuagesima Sunday, followed by Sexagesima Sunday and then finally, Quinquagesima Sunday, or the 50th day before Easter. In medieval times, most people would begin to plan their fasts on Septuagesima Sunday, or roughly 70 days before Easter. On that Sunday, Catholics would make preparations for the great fast to begin, so that by the following Sunday, Sexagesima (60), all meat products would have been consumed.
By the next Sunday, Quinquagesima, most dairy and egg products would have been consumed, so that by Ash Wednesday, there would little left and nothing to waste. Today, with refrigeration and modern food storage, we eat meat, eggs, and dairy all the way up to Fat Tuesday. Many of our Orthodox and Eastern Rite brethren, however, still follow the old way of gradually giving up items as preparation for fasting; we would do well to follow their lead. By gradually giving up meat, eggs, dairy, and sweets in preparation for Ash Wednesday, we are more deliberate about our fasting for Lent.
Even though Lent has already started, it’s not too late to give up meat, eggs, and dairy toward a more traditional Lenten diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts. Your family could have vegetarian meals several times during Lent to focus upon a deeper and more meaningful fast.
Bury the Alleluias
During Lent, we no longer say Alleluia or the Gloria, in keeping with the somber season. Did you know that, in medieval times, there were special ceremonies to actually “bury” the Alleluias? Choirboys and parishioners would carry a small coffin with “alleluia” written on pieces of paper, sprinkle it with holy water, and bury it in the churchyard. Then they would dig it up on Easter! In other places, the word was placed upon a man made of straw and burned. What a perfect way to illustrate how our joyful ways are to succumb to introspection and sadness for our Lord’s suffering!
Even though the Alleluias are no longer said at Mass now, it’s not too late to have your children write Alleluia on some paper and burn it in your fireplace or bury it underground. For northerners, a small Alleluia snowman could be built and then allowed to melt on a tray in a sunny window. There are many ways that your family can portray the loss of this happy acclamation.
Everyone knows about Fat Tuesday with Mardi Gras, beads, and King Cake. In areas with a large Polish immigrant population, paczki (pronounced “poonch-ki”) delicious pastries similar to jelly doughnuts (but much richer) are eaten.
In England and Ireland, however, pancakes are made as another way to rid a household of butter, eggs, and dairy. Popular since medieval times, the elements of pancakes represent elements of the Incarnation: Flour = The Bread of Life, Salt = The Flavor of Life, Milk = The Mother of Life, and Eggs = The Creation of Life. On Shrove Tuesday, pancakes are still made today. (“Shrove” is the past tense of “shrive” from an old English word meaning to ask forgiveness for one’s sins. One would typically go to Confession right before Lent began.)
The story behind the first pancake race allegedly occurred in 1445 in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. A woman was making pancakes when the Shrove Tuesday bells began to ring. She ran to church with her pan and pancake still in her hands! Today, there are pancake races held all over England and Ireland on the day before Ash Wednesday. Running while flipping a pancake in a pan is difficult!
Even though it’s already Lent, have pancakes for supper one night, and, if you are especially adventurous, have a race where a pancake has to be flipped while running. Be sure to discuss the symbolism of the ingredients while your family makes the pancakes together.
Additional Lenten Family Ideas
Have an accountability partner
Within your own family, have each sibling share with another what he or she is giving up or doing extra for Lent. Then set aside time each week when each one can assess how things are going. It’s great to have someone help you through your Lenten sacrifices, especially if it’s a difficult challenge. An accountability partner can help you think of ways to replace the electronics, sweets, or other “addictions” you’ve given up, as well as join you for scripture reading or prayer time.
Create your own Stations of the Cross at home
It’s important to participate in Stations of the Cross and Eucharistic Adoration at your parish. But with kids, it’s even better if you have them create their own Stations. Using gray or tan construction paper, draw the outline of an arched stained glass window. Then have the kids use “stained glass” cut from paper to create the various stations, or draw each station using markers and black lines to make a stained glass appearance. Then place the stations around the house or playroom.
Make sandwich lunches to pass out to hungry people you see
You are driving around town and you see a man holding a sign: “Homeless. Please help.” Be prepared with ready-made sack lunches that you and the kids have made, complete with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, granola bar, and a cheese stick. In addition, have the kids write a prayer or uplifting message and top with a colorful napkin. If you can, you can also include a gift card to a local coffee shop.
Pray at the local abortion clinic
Kids instinctively understand that abortion is the killing of an unborn baby. During 40 Days for Life, or any time, you and your kids can pray a rosary on public property by the clinic. You can choose to be there when it is open or closed, but the offering up a prayer for mothers, dads, unborn babies, as well as the clinic workers is a beautiful life-affirming message for your kids, a great way to live your faith in the public sphere, and an excellent Lenten offering.
It is also the perfect opportunity to discuss our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and speech. Finally, this helps to teach your kids that prayer and love always work better than shouting and anger, even if it does not seem so at the time. In the words of St. Mother Teresa, God does not ask us to be successful. He only asks us to be faithful.
There are many ways that you can “Live Lent” in your home. The more your children see you honoring Lent in your daily life, the more they will want to do so in theirs. Make Lent something that is eagerly anticipated each year in your family.