Lent brings many customs and traditions

PREIST, Germany - A young man from the community of Preist lights a bonfire. In the Eifel region, the first Sunday of Lent is called “Huettensonntag.” Following an ancient tradition, townsfolk believe the lighting of huge bonfires can chase away winter spirits. The young people of the village build a hut from straw and brushwood that is later set on fire. (U.S. Air Force photo by Iris Reiff)

PREIST, Germany - A young man from the community of Preist lights a bonfire. In the Eifel region, the first Sunday of Lent is called “Huettensonntag.” Following an ancient tradition, townsfolk believe the lighting of huge bonfires can chase away winter spirits. The young people of the village build a hut from straw and brushwood that is later set on fire. (U.S. Air Force photo by Iris Reiff)

PREIST, Germany - Local village people gather to observe the lighting and burning of the bonfire in their neighborhood. By tradition, the fire has a special significance - on one hand is a symbol for the sun, and on the other, it purges by burning evil. In some historical views, winter was evil since it brought hardship. (U.S. Air Force photo by Iris Reiff)

PREIST, Germany - Local village people gather to observe the lighting and burning of the bonfire in their neighborhood. By tradition, the fire has a special significance - on one hand is a symbol for the sun, and on the other, it purges by burning evil. In some historical views, winter was evil since it brought hardship. (U.S. Air Force photo by Iris Reiff)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Fasting was introduced thousands of years ago prior to the beginning of the Christian calendar by the ancient cultures of Egypt and Babylonia.

Lent recently began Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17 this year, and will last 40 days, until the Saturday before Easter. If not for health reasons, the fasting time is typically based on religious ideas.

But, why fast for 40 days? The figure 40 is said to have come from the bible. It rained 40 days and 40 nights during the Deluge; it took 40 years before the Israelites were allowed to move to the promised land; and Moses, Elijah, and Jesus Christ all fasted for 40 days.

For Lent, the strict rules of the Middle Ages dictated that nothing was allowed on the table that had come from a warm-blooded animal with the exception of eggs. Eggs, however, were hardly available at this time of the year, and neither was meat, milk, butter, or animal fats.

Nowadays, faithful Catholics still adhere to certain restrictions during the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Some people will stay away from sweets and alcohol, others may cut down on meat, eggs and milk during Lent. Fish was always permitted as Lenten fare, which explains why the fishing trade was so important during the Middle Ages.

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the Friday prior to Easter, are more stringent fasting days, as Catholics also abstain from meats, alcohol and amusement. On Ash Wednesday, people attend church and receive a cross of ash on their foreheads. This is done by the church to remind people they are created from dust and they will turn to dust again.

During winter, men used to live on fat meals with a lot of salted and smoked pork, cabbage cooked with bacon and lard-rich food. This was to supply the required fuel for the winter. Then, toward the second half of February, they switched back to regular food. People also engaged in a number of special customs; some of which were meant to purge the soul and others connected with the coming spring.

People have always tended to enjoy life to the fullest on the days before the fasting period started. That's why it is not a coincidence that Fashing is celebrated prior to Lent.

A variety of customs and traditions take place throughout Germany these days:
In many places, mostly in Southwest Germany, a winter doll made of straw is burned. This tradition goes back to an ancient tradition of chasing away winter spirits. The fire has a special significance. On one hand is a symbol for the sun, and on the other, it purges by burning evil. In some historical views, winter was evil since it brought hardship.

In the Eifel region, the first Sunday of Lent is called "Huettensonntag." From straw and brushwood the young people of the village would build a nearby hut to be set on fire that evening.

There are also numerous customs on the last Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, celebrated by the Catholic church in remembrance of Jesus Christ's arrival in Jerusalem. Palm fronds and olive twigs were strewn in his path, thus, the palm leaf is a fixed part of this Sunday.