The word ‘symbol’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘to juxtapose’ or ‘throw together’.
Broadly, a symbol can be an object, word, or drawing that represents another reality not directly perceivable or expressed. An obvious example is the exchange of wedding rings which symbolize the love of a couple getting married.
Symbols have played a role in the Christian tradition since its beginning. Some ancient symbols survive today; the cross still signifies the power of Jesus as the Christ, and the lamb and the fish continue to serve as symbols of Jesus as well.
Pancakes and Buns
The first surprising food symbol of Lent is the pancakes consumed by many on Shrove Tuesday! Lent is associated with fasting and the day before Lent became an opportunity to use up the foods not allowed during that time. Historically – and even today – a lot of Christians would not eat foods such as meat, fish, fats, eggs, and milky preparations. The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats, and milk in the kitchen with just the addition of flour.
The pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deeply religious roots. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes:
In the week immediately before Lent, everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.
Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. When a person is shriven it means they have confessed their sins and received absolution.
Hot Cross buns are inextricably linked to Easter and Christianity. They are yeast rolls, sweet and sticky, and sprinkled with dried fruit, mixed peel, and potent spices. Traditionally they are eaten on Good Friday and are symbolic of this most important day for the Christian faith when Jesus was crucified.
Each bun is decorated with a cross made from flour paste which represents the cross on which Jesus died. Their spices are said to represent the spices that were used to embalm Christ after his death.
Thomas Radcliffe, a fourteenth monk at St Alban’s Monastery in Hertfordshire is widely credited with making the first hot cross bun when he made the Alban bun in 1361. They were distributed to the local poor on Good Friday. His simple fare so pleased the recipients that word soon spread, and efforts were made across England to imitate the cakes. By the nineteenth-century hot cross buns were commonly eaten on Good Friday to symbolize the end of Lent.
The Story of the Pretzl
Legend goes that a young monk was preparing unleavened bread for Lent. Christians of the day prayed with their arms folded across their chests, each hand on the opposite shoulder. It occurred to him that he could twist the leftover dough from the bread into this shape and use it as a treat for the children to recite their prayers. He named his creation pretiola, Latin for little reward. The three holes represented the Holy Trinity.
Among the Germans, the word became bretzel (the name was changed to pretzel when they reached America). By 1450, Germans ate bretzels and hard-boiled eggs for dinner on Good Friday – the day of fasting. The large puffy shape symbolized everlasting life, and the two hard-boiled eggs, nestled in each of the large round curves of the bretzel, represented Easter’s rebirth.
These were a common Lenten food throughout the Middle Ages in Europe and only became an all-year-round snack, in its original shape in the 19th century.
Simnel cake is mostly eaten in the United Kingdom as well as in countries that have Christian populations descended from British and Irish immigrants. It was originally associated with feast days in Lent, including the fourth Sunday (known as Laetare Sunday) which also coincides with Mothering Sunday. Today we regard Mothers’ Day as a celebration of mums but in Tudor times this was a rare day off for servants to visit their ‘mother’ church if they could taking cakes and flowers as a gift. Simnel cake was made for the occasion and was a welcome change from fasting.
The cake itself contains a lot of dried fruit with a layer of marzipan on top and within. It is also decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolizing the disciples with the exception of the betrayer Juda Iscariot.
The meaning of the word ‘simnel’ may have its origin in a 1226 reference to “bread made into a simnel”, which is understood to mean the finest white bread, from the Latin similia, ‘fine flower’.
All the symbols of Lent are designed, when we reflect upon them, to lead us to a deeper appreciation of this Holy Season, the highest point in the liturgy of the Church.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan