In my Dutch Calvinist world, there was no Fat Tuesday, no Mardi Gras, no Carnival--no feasting and no fasting either, for that matter. My people didn't need any more discipline--spiritual or otherwise--than we already exercised. We learned quickly how to operate theologically sophisticated sin detectors. We knew to train our eyes to be careful what they saw, our ears to be careful what they heard. And hands--well, let's not even go there.
We weren't Amish, didn't dress like Little House on the Prairie, didn't stick with the language of the old country or (by my time at least) didn't separate ourselves--"male and female created He them"--in Sunday worship. We weren't that uptight.
And we didn't make sure our neighbors didn't have a good time either, although we did make clear that washing a car and cutting a lawn were not acceptable Sabbath behaviors. We were suitably adept at keeping an eye peeled for sin, far better, perhaps, at spotting it in your life than knowing it in our own.
I am the child of very, very religious people; but I remember being spanked only once--and then by my mother, who later apologized and actually gave me fifty cents in reparation. The Bible was read at every meal in our household, but I don't remember ever been beaten with it. We knew the rules, but we also knew grace.
One of the most unforgettable nights of my childhood happened when I was no more than eight or nine. A young woman my parents knew well from her once having lived next door came over, distraught, full of tears and terror, because her new husband, she said, was drunk and threatening. Our home became, that night, a sanctuary. What little I understood about abuse turned into livid fear in my imagination, as I waited, as we all did, for that angry, violent husband to come for her. He never did, but her fear and mine are permanently set in my memory.
Today, by church calendar, is a feast day. It's a day for a huge meal, for a wild party, for something a good deal more raucous than a campfire Kumbaya. It's Fat Tuesday today, the day before Lent, the day before discipline. Kick out the jams. Let 'er flicker. Trip the light fantastic. Even the Bible says, "Eat, drink, and be merry." Have a good time today, raise a little cane, because tomorrow we get sober and serious all the way up to Easter. Tomorrow we practice Calvinism.
My father--and his father before him and his father before him--didn't need a calendar to tell him or them to get serious. They were. They didn't need a ritual to get sober.
But my dad could be frivolous too. My sisters and I will never forget him dancing around in his underwear on holiday mornings he didn't have to go to the office. I get what happens in Babette's Feast, loved the movie, will never forget the grim smiles on the faces of all those dour Calvinists who suddenly sense nothing less than grace in the tastes and textures and colors so beautifully arranged on the table before them at that splendid meal.
Today is Mardi Gras. Tomorrow is Lent.
Maybe my wife and I should go out for dinner. But then, we'll likely go for spaghetti tomorrow night--all you can eat!--that's excess enough for day one of Lent. Tonight, Fat Tuesday, it's likely some kind of great soup--Barbara's Feast. It'll be wonderful, I'm sure.
I wasn't raised with the lectionary, didn't know the word until I was into my thirties. I considered Lent something unblinkingly Roman Catholic, like saints and statues and fish on Friday, like bachelor in black robes and bespectacled women in penguin-ish habits.
This Fat Tuesday I likely won't be partying. But then, even this morning, missing Mardi Gras, I'm happy to say I wouldn't trade my childhood for anyone's, in New Orleans or out.
This Fat Tuesday I'm practicing my own form of spiritual discipline, I guess, just as my parents did. This morning I'm giving thanks, Lord, for whatever gifts of faith parents can give, for what gifts of faith mine gave me.
Maybe I'll grab a donut. It is Fat Tuesday.