Septuagesima

By Septuagesima

Ninth Sunday before Easter

Three weeks before Shrove Tuesday falls Septuagesima, marking seventy days until Easter. Whilst this holds some meaning in contemporary Christian and Catholic dogma, historically it meant the start of Carnival.

Shrovetide was the month leading up to Lent, which culminated in Shrove Tuesday where the cupboards would be emptied. From the Day of Ashes to Easter is the period of lent, where forty days of fasting were observed. Shrovetide, then, was an opportunity to gorge on as much rich and varied food as possible. In the middle ages, Carnival was the designation for the feasting that happened throughout Shrovetide, and it was one of the most decadent periods of the year, along with the Twelve Days of Christmas, and lasted an entire month.

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days

Colossians 2:16, KJV

During Shrovetide, it was traditional within the Catholic Church to not sing the ‘Alleluia’ liturgical chant, and so Septuagesima would herald the burying of the Alleluia. A small child from the congregation would be nominated to play the role of Alleluia and brought to the altar during mass, then chased from the church by the priest. As the child ran past, the congregation would strike them with small branches, often hyssop or mint, and join the chase, then outside the child would be symbolically—or, in some cases, literally—buried alive in the grounds of the church.

Although Septuagesima began the Shrovetide excess, it was a solemn and revered day, as it signified the start of the Easter remembrance. Some traditions remain, including the burying of the Alleluia, though modern interpretations use a banner, statue, or effigy in place of a live child. The following Sundays—Sexagesima then Quinquagesima—count down until Lent, then on to Easter Sunday.

Johannes Lingelbach, Carnival in Rome
Johannes Lingelbach, Carnival in Rome, Public Domain