A generation or two ago many American Christians, notably Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, observed a period of spiritual preparation for Lent known as pre-Lent. According to the Western Christian tradition, pre-Lent begins on the ninth Sunday before Easter and ends two and one-half weeks later on Ash Wednesday. Although this observance was recently struck off the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, Orthodox and other Eastern Christians still celebrate preLent. In the Eastern Christian tradition pre-Lent begins on the tenth Sunday before Easter and lasts a full three weeks.


Some writers believe that pre-Lent dates back to early Christian times. One of the earliest mentions of the observance in any historical document comes from the writings of St. Maximus of Turin (d. 408-423 A.D.). He suggested that the especially religious could demonstrate their devotion by beginning their Lenten fast during preLent. In 541 the fourth Council of Orleans discussed the religious observance of pre-Lent. Some writers argue that one of the sixth-century popes, perhaps Pope Pelagius I (d. 561) or Pope John III (d. 574), ordered special penitential observances during pre-Lent in an effort to invoke God's protection during an era when rampaging armies devastated Italy and threatened Rome. Others believe that Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great (540-604), helped to formalize the observance of pre-Lent by writing special intercessions, or prayers, to be said during this period.

The Three Sundays of Western Pre-Lent

In the West the three Sundays of pre-Lent acquired a series of tonguetwisting Latin names. The first of these, known as Septuagesima Sunday, fell nine Sundays before Easter. The word Septuagesima means "seventieth." The second was called Sexagesima Sunday and the third was known as Quinquagesima Sunday. Sexagesima means "sixtieth" and quinquagesima means "fiftieth."

For Western Christians pre-Lent lasted about two and one-half weeks. It ended on the Wednesday following Quinquagesima Sunday, which is called Ash Wednesday. The following Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, was once called Quadragesima, or "fortieth," Sunday. Quadragesima Sunday occurs approximately forty days before Easter. Once established, the name Quadragesima Sunday suggested that the preceding Sundays be given a series of numerical names, even though Sexagesima Sunday and Septuagesima Sunday do not fall exactly sixty and seventy days before Easter. The desire to sketch out a roughly seventy-day period of preparation for Easter may also have figured into the adoption of these names. According to the Bible the ancient Israelites spent seventy years as captives in Babylon. To those familiar with this story an approximately seventy-day period of preparation for Easter might suggest a similar sequence of exile and hardship followed by divine deliverance (see also Redemption). Other writers have speculated that ancient Christian fasting customs helped to establish the period of pre-Lent. In some quarters of the church, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays were never observed as fast days. Therefore, in order to end up with an approximately forty-day fast in anticipation of Easter, the fast would have to begin on the Monday following Septuagesima Sunday.

Traditional Observance

To lay people and monastics alike the religious services that occurred during the three Sundays of pre-Lent took on a special character, one that emphasized devotion, penance, and atonement (for more on pen- ance and atonement, see Repentance). Special religious customs helped to set the tone of these masses (for more on the Roman Catholic religious service known as the mass, see Eucharist). For example, clergy and worshipers abstained from speaking the word alleluia, a joyous exclamation meaning "praise the Lord," during pre-Lent. This abstinence continued on into Lent. Moreover, no flowers adorned the altar during pre-Lent, a formal prayer known as the Gloria was omitted, and priests wore somber, purple robes. The color purple represents repentance in the color symbolism of the Western Church. In addition, the clergy and some of the laity began to wean themselves from foods forbidden during the Lenten fast in this preparatory period.

People also sought out priests during the last several days of pre-Lent in order to make formal confessions of their sins and to receive absolution, or forgiveness. In England this custom gave rise to the name "Shrovetide" for the last several days of pre-Lent as well as the name "Shrove Tuesday" for the very last day of this preparatory season. The word "shrove" is an archaic English word meaning "wrote." In medieval times after a priest heard a confession he frequently wrote out a prescription for an appropriate penance, a series of religious rituals that expresses a person's remorse for his or her errors and hopefully inspires renewed devotion. After going through this process of making confession, receiving penance, and accepting absolution a person was said to be "shriven" of their sins.

The religious customs of pre-Lent conflicted with folk customs popular at that time of year. The especially pious may have begun their Lenten fast in pre-Lent, but many others feasted on rich foods, such as meat, butter, oil, eggs, and cheese. For example, the English dubbed Shrove Tuesday Pancake Day, and in northern England people referred to the last Monday of pre-Lent as "Collop Monday." On that day tradition dictated that one dine on collops, or pieces of meat, which were often fried with eggs and butter. Similar customs existed throughout Europe and gave rise to other charming folk names for the last days of this season. The Russians called the last week of preLent "Butter Week," as they sated themselves on butter-rich dishes during these days (see also Maslenitsa). The French and Germans also gorged themselves with rich foods on the last day of pre-Lent. Hence, they called the day "Fat Tuesday," which translates to Mardi Gras in French and Fetter Dienstag in German. This impulse to indulge in rich foods may have been spurred by anticipation of the upcoming fast. Or people may have been motivated by the desire to use up foods that could not be eaten during Lent. Poor Robin's Al- manack for the year 1684 offered this description of the frantic kitchen activity that characterized the day: But hark, I hear the pancake bell, And fritters make a gallant smell; The cooks are baking, frying, boyling, Stewing, mincing, cutting, broyling, Carving, gormandising, roasting, Carbonading, cracking, slashing, toasting. (Lord and Foley, 63)

In Ireland Quinquagesima Sunday was known as "Whispering Sunday." This name grew out of folk traditions that encouraged matchmaking during pre-Lent. Since this activity was frowned on and marriage forbidden during Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday marked one of the last days that "whispering" of this sort could take place before Easter. In a similar vein, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was known as "Sulky Tuesday," named after the sulky looks of girls who had failed to find a husband. Matchmaking was not the only pleasurable activity the Irish indulged in during pre-Lent. Some people called Quinquagesima Sunday "Tippling Sunday" in reference to the custom of celebrating the last Sunday before Lent with hearty drinking.

In addition to these folk customs a wild celebration known as Carnival dominated the streets of many European countries during the last days of pre-Lent. These street celebrations offered a startling contrast to the somber mood prevailing in the churches. Carnival celebrations later spread to Latin America, the Caribbean, and the southern United States (see also Mardi Gras).

Cancellation and Continued Observance

The Roman Catholic Church discontinued the observance of pre-Lent in 1969. Nevertheless the three Sundays of pre-Lent still appear in the Book of Common Prayer used by the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer currently used by the American Episcopal Church, however, makes no reference to the three Sundays of preLent. Those Western Christians who still observe the season use the time to plan appropriate Lenten disciplines, including fasting regimens, study or meditation projects, and charitable works.

Orthodox Pre-Lent

Orthodox Christians still maintain a pre-Lent season. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe and the countries surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea. Most members of this ancient faith tradition still hail from these eastern countries although Orthodox Christian churches can also be found in the West. Orthodox Christians follow a different church calendar than that commonly adhered to by Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants (see also Easter, Date of). Orthodox pre-Lent lasts for a full three weeks. The purpose of this observance is to help the faithful begin Lent with the proper attitude. The Gospel readings assigned to each of the four Sundays that bracket this three-week period exemplify elements of this attitude. The Gospels - the first four books of the New Testament, or Christian Bible - offer four accounts of the life and death of Christ, as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The first Sunday of pre-Lent occurs ten weeks before Orthodox Easter and is known as the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. The name comes from the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday (Luke 18:10-14). The story of the Publican and the Pharisee celebrates the virtue of humility before God.

The story of the Prodigal Son is told on the second Sunday of preLent, commonly known as the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). This story emphasizes the need to return to God as well as God's eagerness to accept all those who approach Him. "Meat Week" begins on the evening of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. During this week observant Orthodox Christians feast on meat, since the rules of the Lenten fast decree that meat be eliminated from their diet the following week.

The third Sunday of pre-Lent is called Last Judgment Sunday. The Gospel reading assigned for this day proclaims that the righteous will reap heavenly rewards while the selfish and indifferent will face punishment for their lack of compassion (Matthew 25:31-46). This reading reminds Orthodox Christians to commit themselves anew to good deeds, especially deeds of mercy. This Sunday is also known as "Meatfare Sunday," since it is the last day of Meat Week, and the last day on which Orthodox Christians may eat meat before Easter Sunday. The week following Meatfare Sunday is known as Cheese Week or Butter Week since it is the last week during which observant Orthodox Christians may eat cheese and dairy products before the beginning of the Lenten fast. During Cheese Week a festive mood similar to that of western European Carnival prevails in lands populated by Orthodox Christians.

The Saturday that precedes Last Judgment Sunday constitutes the first of the four yearly Soul Saturdays. These Saturdays occur during the pre-Lent, Lent, and Easter seasons and are marked by special religious observances dedicated to the memory of the departed. The second Soul Saturday falls the following week, the last Saturday of pre-Lent.

The fourth and last Sunday of pre-lent is known as Forgiveness Sunday. Forgiveness Sunday falls on the seventh Sunday before Orthodox Easter. Worship services recall the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise as well as Jesus' teaching on forgiveness and fasting (Matthew 6:14-18). The Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday reminds Orthodox Christians of the necessity of giving and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness Sunday is also known as "Cheesefare Sunday," since it is the last day on which observant Orthodox Christians eat cheese and other dairy products before the beginning of the Lenten fast.

Orthodox Christians have maintained the Jewish custom of beginning each day on the evening that precedes it. Therefore Lent begins on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, after vespers, the evening prayer service. For the next seven weeks strictly observant Orthodox Christians will consume no meat, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, fish, wine, or alcohol. The following day, known as Clean Monday, constitutes the first full day of Lent.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Calendar. Springfield, MA: G. and C. Merriam, 1974. Harper, Howard. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Mathewes-Green, Frederica. Facing East. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. "Septuagesima." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Chris- tian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. ---. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.

Web Site

"Pre-Lent," a document describing the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Christians concerning pre-Lent, posted on the Orthodox Church in America web site:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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