Feasting and fasting

Christian and other religions have commemorative days we know as festivals. A festival is a celebration or commemoration where participants rejoice and seek to find an elated state. Festivals are often celebrated by abundant eating and drinking. Therefore, festival days and feast days are the same thing. And, not surprisingly, the words feast and festival are close in meaning.

Religious observances that require solemnity, remembrance or penitence usually also involve giving up your pleasures. This is most importantly abstinence from rich food, or from food altogether, which is known as fasting.

Festival comes from Latin, festa, which means holidays or feasts, from festus meaning festive, joyful, merry. It is related to feriae for holiday and fanum for temple. Decorations at festivals were known as festoons, from the same word, festa (before it became a verb).

Fast comes from Old English fæstan and its original meaning was to hold firmly (like steadfast and holdfast). It came to mean firm control of oneself and holding to observance (of the religious rules). So from this fasting came to mean holding to your abstinence from food. The use of fast for speed comes from the original meaning, as running fast meant holding a steady pace.

Christianity’s Lent is a period of abstinence which begins on Ash Wednesday (four weeks before Easter). Lent is short for Lenten, the forty days of fasting before Easter. Lenten, in Old English was Lencten the word for spring. It derived from the shortening of the Germanic langa-tinaz, meaning long-days (referring to the lengthening days after the short days of winter).

Immediately before Lent is the Mardi Gras, a festival of abundance. Mardi Gras comes directly from French and literally means Fat (gras) Tuesday (Mardi) in reference to the feasting undertaken before the long fast.

In Britain Mardi Gras is known as Shrove Tuesday. Shrove is the past tense of shrive which meant to obtain absolution for ones sins through confession and penance. It is also known as Pancake Tuesday because the feast is represented by eating pancakes (Protestants are not very good at indulging themselves). Carnival is similar to Shrove Tuesday in that it is the feasting before Lent. Carnival literally means “to take away meat”—carne levare.

Yom Kippur, meaning the Day (Yom) of Atonement (Kippur from to atone) is the most important day of the Jewish year (also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths) and fasting occurs as a means of repentance.

In Islam, the month of Ramadan, is the time for fasting and abstinence. Ramadan meant the hot month from the Arabic word ramida meaning to be burnt or scorched. It was originally a summer month, but after changes to the Islamic lunar calendar, it occurs in all seasons over a cycle of 33 years.

Hindus and Jains fast on several days including Ekadasi, meaning the eleventh (day) of the two fortnights in their lunar month.

So whatever our religion we all share the same ways of celebrating the good by feasting and repenting the bad by fasting.