SALT LAKE CITY — Festive purple and yellow streamers, glittering masks and shiny table decor greeted attendees of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark's annual Shrove Tuesday feast of pancakes, bacon and sausage.
More than 200 Episcopalians and others would be served by the end of the night by cheerful volunteers wearing green and purple Mardi Gras beads.
Events like this pancake supper, tied to the day also known as Fat Tuesday, have served as a last hurrah before the solemn observance of Lent for centuries, as Christians prepared their hearts and stomachs for the holy season.
"The idea was that you would get everyone together, have a big party and eat up all the things you wouldn't be able to eat during Lent," said Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History magazine. The period between Ash Wednesday — marked this year on March 1 — and Easter was meant to be a time of self-sacrifice and self-reflection, so Christians gave up indulgences like eggs and butter.
Although most Christian communities are less strict about Lenten traditions today than they were in the past, food still plays a major role in this religious season, according to scholars. Many believers fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; Catholics eat fish on Lenten Fridays; and most Christians celebrate the end of the Lent with an Easter feast.
Nearly 6 in 10 Americans (57 percent) who observe Lent say they give up a favorite food or beverage from Ash Wednesday until Easter, making it a more popular sacrifice than avoiding a bad habit (35 percent) or favorite activity (23 percent), LifeWay Research reported in February.
Food isn't meant to be the focus of the season, but practices like fasting or avoiding a vice, such as caffeine, can help Christians be more intentional during the lead-up to Easter, said Scott McConnnell, the executive director of LifeWay Research.
"For those who observe Lent, and especially for those who give up certain foods, it's a way to make an Easter gathering even more special by reintroducing sweet tea or Coke or chocolate or whatever it was you gave up," he said.
In early Christian churches, only the most misbehaved church members had to worry about Lenten sacrifices, noted Tait, who is also an ordained Episcopal priest.
"Originally, the idea was that people who had committed grave sins would undergo penitence during the 40 days before Easter. They'd sit in a certain place in church and sometimes wear ashes on their forehead," she said. "Over time, the idea emerged that these would be good things for everyone to do."
The logic was that everyone could benefit from fasting and other acts of self-denial, Tait added, noting that her own fasting experiences have shown her the truth behind that sentiment.
Colleen Scott and Noor Ul-Hasan trade Mardi Gras beads at the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
"Fasting sort of concentrates your mind," she said. "If you're not eating or figuring out what to eat or cooking, you can spend more time in prayer."
Contemporary Lenten practices vary widely from denomination to denomination. Orthodox Christians are still expected to abstain from dairy and other indulgences, while Catholics are encouraged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
Overall, only 1 in 4 Americans (24 percent) say they observe Lent, a figure that includes 61 percent of Catholics, LifeWay Research reported.
But food-related sacrifices seem to have an enduring appeal among people of both Christian and non-Christian faiths. And McConnell said he's observed growing interest in this aspect of Lent within the evangelical Christian community.
Fasting or giving up a particular food or drink "is one more way that we can be seeking to draw closer to God," he said.
Food and fellowship
Although Lent might seem like an excellent dieting opportunity, akin to the month-long Whole 30 program or a multi-day juice fast, it's first and foremost supposed to be about deepening your faith, Tait said.
"The point is that you should examine yourself and what's going on between you and God," she said.
Lent is also an opportunity for Christians to examine their relationship with others, which is why some people create Lenten food goals that involve donating canned goods to local food banks and pantries or reducing food waste.
Janet Healy, her husband Tony Healy, his sister Dolores Healy, Allene Dotson, Mike Stovall and his wife Wendy Stovall, left to right, chat at the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Proceeds from the St. Mark's pancake supper benefit the cathedral's food pantry, which serves 30,000 community members each year.
Amy O'Donnell, who manned the dessert table during Tuesday's event, noted that Lent can inspire people to take on difficult challenges and better themselves. She gave up meat for Lent when she was 25 for moral and health reasons and hasn't eaten it in the more than three decades since.
"I did it so that I could try to be who I wanted to be," she said, standing over a double chocolate cake with "Lent" written on it in bright yellow frosting.
The good news for those who are already craving chocolate, caffeine or any other tempting item they're trying to do without is that it's only a little more than six weeks until Easter.
Fat Tuesday and Easter "are interesting bookends" to this time of the year, Tait said, noting that Lent is meant to reflect "the natural rhythms of life."