“Give up chocolate for March!” said a cheerful female voice-over during a radio commercial. As I drove along I became increasingly furious. I don’t want to give up chocolate for March. What’s March got to do with anything? And what were the ad men thinking when they came up with that line? Not offending “other religions” and those of no religion, I suppose.
Like Basil Fawlty whispering “Don’t mention the war!”, society has largely decided to treat Christian festivals as taboo, an embarrassment, too dangerous to mention, too offensive to make a part of our national life – although they never actually do offend when we practise them, strangely enough. “Give up chocolate for March.” How moronic. Like Stoptober and Movember, it is utterly meaningless as a concept.
And yet this is what we are left with in place of the deeply resonant festivals we used to celebrate together. In fact, ‘‘Give up chocolate for March’’ is so beige, cowardly, bland and without conviction it offends me with its very lack of meaning, especially when compared with the deeply poignant passages from the New Testament which pertain to our understanding of Lent, in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
Finding that Lent has been distilled into an ad campaign for the British Heart Foundation insults my Christian beliefs. But I don’t suppose the BHF will be losing much sleep about it.
While it would be nice to think that committed Christians will continue to celebrate Lent, Easter and Christmas in a big way indefinitely, I’m afraid I’m not so hopeful. The ambivalence or downright hostility of society as a whole towards Christian festivals does have a knock-on effect, because people are like sheep, they act as a herd.
I suspect the reason I often forget to make a formal commitment to Lent is because the communal feel of it has all but disappeared. The camaraderie has gone out of it.
Like an increasing number of Christian observances, Lent is no longer practised by enough people in my social circle for it to have a sense of common purpose. Compared with how Lent used to feel when I was a child, it is all very disappointing and lacklustre.
Lent was a major event for me, growing up in a small town with a significant Catholic population, and was something a large number of people we knew took part in. At St Joseph’s, we girls always gave up something really big, by which I mean chocolate or sweets. I don’t think our imaginations could stretch to anything more gruelling than that.
Occasionally, the nuns would come up with some half-baked idea about giving up being disobedient, but that didn’t wash. Lent meant giving up chocolate or sweets and that was that. There was always a great debate about what constituted a chocolate item, and what a sweet.
I remember one year a friend of mine tried to give up both. She became a legend until we found her stuffing her face with a sherbet dip in the cloakroom. The effort had become too much for her. She over-reached.
As well as the main festivals, the various saints’ feast days celebrated by the nuns at our school were a big deal. We would always get the day off for the relevant ones. Like the other parents no doubt, my mother raised an eyebrow to these bonus holidays.
“Who is it this time?” she would ask, when I came home to tell her there was a saint’s day off the following week. We learned all about the particular saint being celebrated the day before the feast day, and then that afternoon we would hurtle towards the school gates proclaiming the greatness of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, or whoever it happened to be, for tomorrow’s day of leisure was on them.
Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday were much-loved landmarks in the year. Going to church to get the cross on your forehead or your palm crucifix was a matter of great excitement. In both cases, you compared yours to a friend’s to see who had the more perfectly made one, always concluding you liked your own slightly wonky one best.
And after Mass on Easter Day would come a stupendous roast chicken lunch and a brightly iced Easter cake which my mother had allowed me to decorate with chicks.
But as with Christmas, the fun and games would have been meaningless without the church service beforehand to put the celebrations in context. There was a great sense of common purpose as we poured into our tiny local church to celebrate the beliefs that bound us together. I miss it. I can continue to be a Christian who celebrates Christian festivals, of course. But it feels as though I can never again be a part of a community – much less a country – for whom those festivals are a binding force, a rallying point, a common purpose. Nowadays, Christmas has been commercialised to within an inch of its life, while Lent is just plain lonely.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author