It’s been a year. I don’t need to tell you that. We’re coming up on the first anniversary of stay-at-home orders in the U.S. Between the pandemic, the economic crisis, the election, the attempts to overturn our democracy—whew, it’s been a real one. Even those lucky to have our health and jobs, sitting at home for a year has been fucking stressful. And given, you know, [gestures wildly] everything, we don’t even have our typical means of unwinding, be they dining out with friends, going to the movies, partying, or just being within six feet of a friend’s entire face.
But you know what we still have? Chocolate. And with Lent coming up in tandem with the one-year American pandemic mark, let me be the one to say it: don’t you dare give up sweets for Lent this year. Now, am I a theologian? Certainly not. Am I a practicing Christian? Oh, no, no. But I am a lapsed Catholic. And though my Mass attendance has plummeted since 2008, I’ve still got opinions.
First off: what is Lent? Lent is perhaps the most Catholic of all the seasons on the Catholic calendar. (It’s actually observed by all Christians, but it feels like Catholics are the ones who really relish it, you know?) Lent comprises the 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter. To emulate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by Satan, Christians are encouraged to give up some kind of guilty pleasure for Lent—junk food, swearing, or, in the case of the 2002 Josh Hartnett vehicle 40 Days And 40 Nights, sex—in pursuit of closeness with God. In the 21st century, in a major way, Lent is about food. Let me explain.
Lent and diet have long been intertwined, though exactly how has evolved with time. The weeks leading up to Easter were defined in 325 A.D. as a fasting time. That meant one meal per day, which contained no meat, cheese, milk, or eggs. (Today, we call that “intermittent fasting and eating vegan.”) That’s why Easter eggs are a thing: after abstaining from yolk for six weeks, you’d be excited enough to dye them blue, too.
The Church ditched the 40-day fast in medieval times so that people could have energy to labor (womp womp). You might have heard the whole spiel about how the Pope enacted fish Fridays to bolster the fishing industry. That’s a myth, though Edward VI of England did basically that: after his dad, Henry VIII, ditched Rome so he could get a divorce, fish was seen as a “popish” food and fell out of style. Edward reinstated “no meat on Fridays” to save the British fishing industry, and apparently it worked, because, fish and chips.
Since the Protestant Reformation (16th century), each branch of Christianity has developed its own rules/ways of observing Lent, which slackened across the board over the course of the 20th century. Across Christianity, the general thing during Lent is: spend six weeks on your relationship with God, preferably by giving up something up a guilty pleasure. Apparently, though, for many people “knowing God” means “ditching my late-afternoon chocolate-covered pretzels.”
To be clear, I’m not writing about people who plan to use the upcoming 40 days to get closer to a higher power. I’m talking about those who generally abstain from some food-based vice in Lent—fries or chocolate or Chipotle Fridays or whatever—for no better reason than to lose weight and lower their cholesterol. To better themselves, not society. The people raised in Christian households, but who’ve fallen off, their annual Lenten promise a vestige of their parochial upbringing. Indeed, the slackening of Catholic Lent rules coincided with the rise of American diet culture, both taking hold midcentury. Lent has become, for a lot of people, an excuse to diet for a few weeks. (And diets, let’s not forget, don’t really work.) Will abstaining from your nightly scoop of Jeni’s really crystalize your understanding of humanity, Phil? Does forgoing Ruffles really give you an idea of what hanging out in the desert with the literal Devil might be like, Angela? Will not masturbating until Easter really bring any kind of peace to the world, Josh Hartnett?
The conflation of Lent and dieting happens every year. But this year, of all the years: don’t fall for it.
Do you really think you should be living more scarcely than you are right now? Then donate cash to a mutual aid fund. (And if you find yourself thinking, “Man, I’ve been living it up, I could use a little challenge,” then maybe rethink your COVID safety practices.) But if you’ve been putting on PPE to go to work every day, or you’ve been cooped up at home for nearly twelve months, don’t you even think about giving up sweets for Lent in 2021. We can’t go to the movies, we can’t have dinner parties, we can’t go to concerts or bars or restaurants—comfort food is basically all we have right now! If you give up sweets for Lent, then what’ll you have? Netflix? Gearing up in a parka to sit on a bench with your friend for 20 minutes before you stop feeling your toes and need to go home to cry it out? I don’t mean this lightly: dessert is quite possibly holding our society together right now, by a thread no less. We need sweets. We need guilty pleasures. We need to skip dumb Lenten diets in 2021.
So how about this: it’s Girl Scout Cookie season, motherfuckers. It’s a sacred season you can celebrate from the comfort and safety of your COVID bubble. An agonizing truth of Catholic life is the near-perfect alignment of Girl Scout Cookie season and Lent, but this year, you have permission—nay, an obligation—to go all in on the former. And if you don’t, society just might crumble like a year-old Do-si-do.