If you thought Lent was 40 days of self-denial and spiritual reflection, think again! Take it all with a pinch of salt and get out your Carnaval clothes if you live in the south of the Netherlands because the madness isn’t over yet. I have discovered that halfway through Lent, everyone needs a breather and this isn’t just a Dutch tradition, either. All around the Roman Catholic world there are celebrations halfway through Lent called Laetare or Rose Sunday. In the UK, this is the day that Mothering Sunday is celebrated.

It’s only very recently that I’ve become aware of the phenomenon of Halfvasten, a celebration halfway through Lent, this year on 15 March. I was talking to Dutch friends and asking what happened to the giant carnival floats after the Carnaval parades. They told me that sometimes they are sold on to other carnival organisations, either as a unit or broken into constituent parts. So those fantastic floats could well be recycled. Waste not want not! But not yet, because a lot of the best local floats are given another outing halfway through Lent during the Halfvasten parade and I was lucky enough to see part of the big parade in Oss. It was pretty noisy, but the floats I saw were huge and fabulous and the thing that really amazed me was the way they moved. So fluid. Almost human. Watch the video below and see how they do it. It’s not as high-tech as you might think. There is also a nighttime parade in Groesbeek in the same weekend, but I missed that one. Next year, maybe.

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Giving something up for Lent

Do IMG_0340you give up something for Lent? Many people, even those who are not religious, use the traditional season of Lent (the weeks between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday) to give up something, often chocolate, coffee or alcohol. When I used to go to Sunday school at an Anglican church in the UK, we were encouraged to save our pocket money in a special paper collecting box and donate it to charity. Every year we would learn something about a different developing country and the money would be donated at the end of Lent to the charity in question. Christian Aid perhaps or the Tear Fund, if I remember correctly.

In the Netherlands too, primary schools often grasp the Lent period to focus on a specific country and how people live there, bringing it down to the personal level of what children eat, what their schools and houses look like. Just as I did when I was a child, the children save money for charity throughout Lent, as do churches. The Roman Catholic church uses the Vastenaktie charity, this year raising money for Sri Lanka and also held a pilgrimage. A collecting envelope and leaflet dropped through our letterbox while I was writing this (see below). The Protestant churches have a separate campaign, Kerk in Actie 40dagentijd (40 day period). This year’s theme is Open Your Hands, encouraging people to share money, but also time, things and attention, and raising money to support various projects.

Learning about Lent around the world

A friend of mine in the UK is hoping to become a nun and has been sharing all sorts of fascinating information about the process and sometimes she comes up with the most surprising things. For example, how long does Lent lasts? I was convinced it was 40 days of fasting (as in the Dutch 40dagentijd) or more accurately abstinence, but it’s not. Lent lasts for 47 days! How can this be? Well, apparently Sundays are not included as fasting days because that is “the day of the Lord”, the day Jesus was resurrected, and therefore every Sunday is counted as a feast day. That’s why Sunday is the traditional day for roasts in England, why it is considered to acceptable to eat meat on Sundays even during Lent (unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan, of course), and why there are only 40 days of fasting in a 47-day period.

Another friend of mine is from Georgia (the country, not the American state) and follows the Eastern Orthodox tradition which has different dates for Christmas, Easter, etc. Their Lent starts 2 days earlier than Western Christian churches with Clean Monday when no meat, fish, eggs or dairy is eaten. She told me that she strictly adheres to this vegan diet throughout the Lenten period and knows many traditional recipes from home with beans, grains and vegetables, but a staple during Lent is cabbage soup. It sounds like a very healthy way of purifying your body and soul, and she says she is happy to make the sacrifice to thank God for everything she has. Given that she came here as a refugee and has had to leave everything behind, not once but twice, I can only admire her faith and resilience.

Learning about other cultures is one of the most fascinating things about having friends from all over the world and living as an expat. So many traditions, so many cultures, so much diversity. So many festivals to celebrate. It all makes the world a more colourful place to live.

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