In which I get all abstemious

So today is Shrove Tuesday, on which people across the nation will gorge themselves on pancakes, and then promptly give up pancakes, not just for Lent but for the whole damn year, or at least until they have cause to eat breakfast in America, at which point they will mutter, “These aren’t proper pancakes… hmmph…” and prod the bacon suspiciously with their knife on the grounds that the bacon is not proper either, and has no place on the same plate as a pancake. And thus, a great religous cultural tradition continues.

But it’s the part of the tradition after the pancakes have been flipped, and the Jif lemon chucked back onto the funny little shelf on the back of the fridge door where nothing else really fits, that I’m concerned with today. It’s the tradition of giving something up for Lent that’s preoccupying my pretty little head.

I had a phase of giving things up for Lent during my teenage years. Chocolate was the favourite form of self-denial. And this year I’m going to try it again. From Ash Wednesday to Easter with no chocolate. No chocolate bars. No chocolate cake. No chocolate biscuits. No hot chocolate. Strangely, the more detail I write down about this plan, the worse the idea seems. However, it’s still better than my first idea which was to give up alcohol. That’s a plan I was fine with until I realised that alcohol includes wine. Even rosé, apparently.

 The religious notion of Lenten self-denial comes from the biblical story of Christ being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. I will follow Son of Man’s example by being tempted by Maltesers in Sainsburys. It’s really very similar. Actually this form of self-denial has no particular religious resonance. I’m doing it because my well-intentioned weight loss has plateaued somewhat and cutting down on the sweets and puddings might reboot the diet plan.

So why pick Lent? Why not give up chocolate on the third Wednesday in January, or on a random Thursday during June? Well, just because “giving something up for Lent” is a notion that exists in my English-Christian educated brain. It delivers a feeling of cultural rightness that giving something up on another self-selected date just doesn’t provide. Somehow by picking Lent you get a gentle cultural shove that tops-up your motivation with two thousand years of learnt behaviour. 

And it has the added benefit of potentially irritating a wide-range of evangelicals. On the Dawkinsesque evangelical-atheist end of the curve you can be irritated by my choosing to observe an ancient church tradition, which I’ve already acknowledged has very little to do with my personal reasons for this particular act of abstention. On the evangelical-Christian end you can be irritated at a religious observance being taken over by the wider popular culture and reinterpreted for reasons of weight loss and, indeed, vanity. And here on the broad and friendly centre-ground you can just nod quietly and go, “Oh,” and then cheerfully get on with the rest of your day. That is all.

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