Why Pre-Lent or Shrovetide?

02-04-2024Weekly ReflectionFr. Leonard F. Villa

Pre-Lent in the West

Shrovetide, also known as the Pre-Lenten Season, is the Christian period of preparation before the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. The preparation marks seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter. Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent. The word shrove is a form of the English word shrive, which means to give absolution for someone's sins by way of Confession and doing penance. Thus Shrove Tuesday was named after the custom of Christians to be "shriven" before the start of Lent.

Shrove Tuesday serves a dual purpose of allowing Christians to repent of any sins they might have made before the start of Lent on the next day Ash Wednesday and giving them the opportunity to engage in a last round of merriment before the start of the somber Lenten season, which is characterized by making a Lenten sacrifice, fasting, praying, the works of mercy and engaging in various spiritual disciplines, such as marking a Lenten calendar, fasting, abstaining from luxuries, and reading a daily devotional. A daily devotional is a religious publication that provides a specific spiritual reading for each calendar day. Many daily devotionals take the form of one year devotional books, with many being tailored specifically for children, teenagers, students, men and women.

A popular Shrove Tuesday tradition is the ringing of the church bells (on this day, the toll is known as the Shriving Bell) "to call the faithful to confession before the solemn season of Lent" and for people to "begin frying their pancakes" Pancakes are associated with Shrove Tuesday, the day preceding Lent, because they are a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. The liturgical fasting emphasizes eating simpler food, and refraining from food that would give undue pleasure: in many cultures, this means no meat, lacticinia (dairy products) or eggs. On Shrove Tuesday, churches would burn the palms distributed during the previous year's Palm Sunday liturgies to make the ashes used during the services held on the very next day, Ash Wednesday.

During the season of Shrovetide, it is customary for Christians to ponder what Lenten sacrifices they will make for Lent. Another hallmark of Shrovetide is the opportunity for a last round of merrymaking associated with Mardi-Gras or Carnevale ( say good-bye to meat) before the start of the somber Lenten season; the traditions of consuming Shrovetide buns after attending church are celebrated. Entenmanns bakery still sells Cross Buns during the Lenten season. Hot cross buns became commemorations of Good Friday, and across Christendom the cross came to represent the crucifixion and the spices symbolized those used to embalm Jesus at his burial. The buns were blessed.

Pre-Lent in the East

In the Eastern Catholic Churches and Orthodox churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, the preLenten season lasts three weeks. It begins on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and continues through the Sunday of Forgiveness, the day before the beginning of Great Lent. Since the liturgical day begins at sunset, and Great Lent begins on a Monday, the point at which Great Lent begins is at Vespers on the night of the Sunday of Forgiveness, with a "Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness". In some monasteries, this ceremony is performed at Compline (Night Prayer) instead of Vespers (Evening Prayer).

Thus begins the first day of the Great Fast, which is known as Clean Monday. The weeks of pre-Lent and Great Lent are anticipatory by nature. They begin on Monday and end on Sunday, each week being named for the theme of the upcoming Sunday. The hymns used during the Pre-Lenten and Lenten seasons are taken from a book called the Triodion. The weeks of the Pre-Lenten Season break are:

  • Zacchaeus Sunday (Slavic tradition) is sometimes regarded as a pre-Lenten Sunday because of its place in the Slavic lectionary. In that tradition, it is the eleventh Sunday before Pascha (Easter). There are no hymns proper to this Sunday. Its only distinguishing feature is the reading of Luke 19:1-10, the Gospel concerning Zacchaeus. This lectionary reading is sometimes also appointed on the same Sunday in the Byzantine ("Greek") lectionary, as well. The week following this Sunday is a normal, nonLenten time, since it falls outside the Triodion.
  • The Publican and the Pharisee: Tenth Sunday before Pascha (70 days). The week following this Sunday is a fast-free week, lest the faithful be tempted, like the Pharisee to boast about fasting.
  • The Prodigal Son: Ninth Sunday before Pascha (63 days). The week following this Sunday is the last during which the laity may eat meat or meat products. The fasting rules for this week are the same as those for non-Lenten periods.
  • The Last Judgment or Meat-Fare Sunday (the last day meat may be eaten): Eighth Sunday before Pascha (56 days). The week following this Sunday is called Cheese-Fare Week and is a fast free week, with the exception that meat and meat products are forbidden.
  • Sunday of Forgiveness or Cheese-Fare Sunday: Seventh Sunday before Pascha (49 days). This Sunday is the last day dairy products may be consumed. Throughout Great Lent, fish, wine, and olive oil will be allowed only on certain days. (END)

There Are Offertory Antiphons

Although not printed in the Missal (they should be) there are Offertory Antiphons to be chanted when the offertory gifts are brought to the altar. The traditional Antiphon-Chants are the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) to accompany the procession to the altar. There is a Responsorial Psalm which only came into use with the Missal of Pope Paul VI. The response of antiquity is called the Gradual chant, called that, because it was chanted originally on a step. The Latin word for step is gradus. Gradual chants exist for the current liturgy in a book called The Roman Gradual, which contains all the antiphons and chants for the church-year. Instead of the Responsorial Psalm, the Gradual chant may be sung including a chant called a Tract when the Alleluia is omitted. That name apparently derives from either the drawn-out style of singing or the continuous structure without a refrain. Finally there is a Communion Antiphon to accompany the distribution of Communion. Note: A hymn or song may not be substituted for the Responsorial Psalm.


Ash Wednesday is February 14 a day of fasting and abstinence from meat. Plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day (St. Valentine would agree!) on February 13 and on that day get shriven!