Fasching and Lent

Fasching and Lent

Back in 1972, my father’s side of the family had a pleasant, sunny flat in Vienna. Now, Austria is a strongly Catholic country, and I’ve noticed that Catholic countries are, in general, much more fun-loving than the colder Protestant countries like Germany, England, and Scandinavia. Maybe it’s about having more sun and warmth, or maybe it’s the Protestant work ethic; either way, there are more holidays and general cheer, or so it seems to me.

Fasching is the two-week winter holiday – two weeks of winter pleasure and parties before the start of Lent. Everyone who can goes to the mountains to ski and indulge in wonderful food, glühwein, and roaring fires. That year, my sister broke her leg three days before the start of Fasching; she spent two weeks drinking in front of the fire with the other ski cripples – mostly Krambambuli, which is a hot mixture of red wine and rum.

Fasching has a particular resonance for me because in it was during this period that in 1972 I moved from the wilds of suburban New Jersey to the civilized urbanity of Vienna. It was a food revelation, for sure: first-class coffee, chocolate, pastries, wines, Weinerschnitzel (natürlich), authentic gulasch, ingredients from all over eastern Europe including sour cherries, topfen galochen (the equivalent of crème fraiche), leber knödeln (which means ‘liver dumplings’ but they’re actually chocolate truffles), unbelievably delicious cold meats, and so on. Even the school food was delicious! Once she was on her feet again, my sister and I checked out all the local cafés and small restaurants, comparing Spezialtost and Gulaschsuppe. Of course, at the respective ages of 14 and 16, we were not supposed to drink, but a small glass of white wine with dinner never hurt anyone, eh?

All this was brought to mind by a lovely party I went to on Saturday night, a Mummerei hosted by some German Catholic friends here in Urbana. ‘Mummerei’ means a masquerade, and everyone duly showed up in costume, with or without masks. (I went as an impresario in a full-length velvet cloak, and Michael wore his Cambridge academic gown.) There was delightful food and drink, a Dixieland band, and great fun was had by all. The American equivalent is, of course, Mardi Gras – ‘fat Tuesday’, or the day of feasting before the austerity and fasting of Lent starting on Ash Wednesday. Instead of the Mathematician’s Potluck this week, which would be on Ash Wednesday, we will be eating up the leftovers on Tuesday – Fat Tuesday, in fact.

I always think of Fasching as the last great indulgence before Lent, with the latter’s emphasis on self-abnegation and detachment. It’s rather like having a party to clean the food out of the fridge and pantry before the Lenten fasts. Of course, the outer activities are metaphors for our inner work. What can we celebrate? What can we release? What are we attached to that it would be good to look at and let go of?

In the Jewish tradition, we spend the week before Passover cleaning the house and getting rid of every crumb of leavened bread. Metaphorically, we are looking for the tiniest bit of sin and transgression blocking our ability to be fully aligned with God and the Law. We set aside everything fermented (alcohol and vinegar) or that might be naturally fermentable such as grains, peas, and lentils, and we clean, clean, clean prior to the Passover Seder. Judaism is so food-oriented that it’s curiously appropriate to mark Passover with the mandatory consumption of ritual foods: bitter herbs, roast lamb shanks, charoseth, and kosher wine.

It seems to me that we get rid of those temporarily incorrect foods so that we can fill up the space with symbolic reminders of our blessings: escape from slavery, liberation, developing our own territory, the richness of apples, spices, and wine. This is one reason both Catholicism and Judaism are more entertaining than Protestant Puritanism: because even if we withdraw for a season, in general, we love life and enjoy being on the planet. We’re here in corporeal form, so we might as well enjoy it – with detachment, for sure, but equally with pleasure and zest, even as we are zealous for worlds beyond this one. In that respect, Fasching and Lent go hand in hand…