The origins of what we now know as Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi-Gras in France, most likely stem from pagan celebrations that marked the end of winter and heralded the coming of spring. Long standing and widely observed seasonal celebrations that morphed with the Matronalia feasts of the Roman Empire before later becoming Christianized to mark the start of Lent.
Lent, the forty days before Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday and recalls the forty years spent in the wilderness by the people of Israel under Moses and the forty days that Christ spent in the desert after his baptism, before the commencement of his mission. For Christians, it was and remains for many, a period of introspection, where one abstained from meat and rich foodstuffs such as fatty or sweet foods.
The day immediately preceding Ash Wednesday marks the end of the period of excess or ‘seven fat days’ before the Lenten fasting period begins, it is thus ‘Fat Tuesday’, literally translated as Mardi-Gras. Today, it is customary to eat crêpes, pancakes, doughnuts or waffles on Mardi-Gras or Pancake Day as it is known in many parts of the world. Such an indulgence is a relic from the times when these dishes were made to purposefully exhaust the scarce reserves of eggs and butter that were not going to be used during Lent. This was a genuine sacrifice during a time when most common people enjoyed, at best, a simple and relatively poor diet.
In anticipation of forty days of austerity where folk would typically eat only millet with water or milk, pea puree and porridge, the festivities associated with the period before Lent were an opportunity for people to let their hair down, to release and revitalise, ahead of the hard work brought with the arrival of spring. They were informal, relaxed opportunities to gather together in shared fellowship with friends and neighbours; to dance, to sing, to tell tall tales, to feast and make merry.
While some Breton Mardi-Gras favourites, such as craquelines and crêpes are widely recognised, a sweet dish known as the Farz Buen was also very popular; imagine a deconstructed pancake made with a thick crêpe batter and lots of sugar and salted butter, the mixture is fried until the pieces are carmelised and sprinkled with more sugar. In south west Brittany, the Bara Dous was another Mardi-Gras speciality; a soft very sweet bread made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, sugar and a dash of alcohol, sometimes raisins were added too. This region of Brittany also enjoyed another quite distinct Mardi-Gras culinary tradition, the Chotten or pig’s cheek.
In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, it was common for even the most meagre households to raise a pig or two for the purpose of feeding the family and to sell some of the good cuts of meat for money to buy another pig. The pig was therefore a valuable commodity and no part of the butchered animal was wasted; just the offal from one animal alone could keep a large family well-nourished for a fortnight. For those animals slaughtered in the run-up to Mardi-Gras, the pig’s heads, having first been cut in half and well soaked in brine, were brought to the neighbourhood baker or communal bread oven to be baked in the oven, after the bread. Here, they roasted in the pre-heated oven for several hours before emerging steaming and golden brown, to the delight of the salivating spectators.
In some parts of eastern Brittany, a little broth made with andouille, a smoked pork sausage, was saved for Mardi-Gras and a little sprinkled around the farmyard in order to protect hens from attacks by foxes over the year ahead. Another old rural superstition said that it was bad luck to spin on Mardi-Gras lest the mice consume the thread for the rest of the year.
In the more dispersed rural parts of Brittany, Mardi Gras was an opportunity to gather together with family, friends and the wider community. It was a time for merrymaking, feasting, drinking and for playing games. Games such as sack racing, running with ducks, skittles or eating sausages suspended from a line were not just for the children but there were some games that were the preserve of the adult men, such as wrestling, pole-raising, tug-o-war or cutting off the head of a suspended goose with a single blow while riding past on horseback on a cart. A game known as the Russian Bucket was also popularly played in times past; a tub of water or a concoction of more noxious substances was suspended over a street. At the base of this tub was a board pierced with a hole. Standing in a hand-pulled cart, it was necessary to pass a wooden lance through the hole underneath the tub. If the aim failed, the tub would tip, spilling its contents all over the competitor.
In the picturesque town of Guerlesquin, on the day of Mardi-Gras only, the men of the town play a game known as Bouloù Pok. The men are divided into two teams depending on whether they live north or south of the town square, with the orientation of the main entrance of each house used to settle any disputed cases. The game, which lasts all day, is unique to the town and is best described as a cross between bowls and shuffleboard; the participants must throw the boulou – an individually carved half-cylinder of hardwood with a lead core – as close as possible to the mestr, a cut wooden ball sited on the field of play. A bay leaf is presented to each player on the winning team along with the bragging rights to be called ‘World Champion of Bouloù Pok’. The origins of this unique game are lost to us but a contribution register from 1856 indicates that the game had been played long before that date and local tradition claims that the contest was invented by the parish priest in the 17th century in order to curb the more aggressive sports hitherto engaged in by his male parishioners.
Mardi-Gras celebrations in the Breton cities were, much like the pagan festivals of earlier times, widely regarded by the locals as a period of license and officially-tolerated disorder. The spirit of carnival prevailed: social conventions were temporarily cast aside, roles were reversed; men dressed as women, the poor in the fashion of the well-to-do, sailors dressed as agricultural peasants and vice versa. Through costume and disguise, one’s station in life could be momentarily overturned and forgotten. The mask of anonymity allowed a mischievous opportunity for people to harangue and poke fun at authority and those who wielded it.
Parades often gave rise to parodies of religious processions but such outrages were tolerated by the religious and civil authorities, even if they reproached the excesses of the multitude or the ridicule of which they were the victims. In time, these urban parades and celebrations overflowed from Mardi-Gras itself to range over several days of festivities. In the 19th century, some local authorities in Brittany tried to gain a measure of control over these celebrations with the organisation of official cavalcades and approved organising committees.
Some Breton towns continue to host impressive Mardi-Gras celebrations that draw thousands of participants and spectators from far and wide. The biggest carnival in Brittany is Les Gras de Douarnenez which, since 1835, features a succession of parties, costume balls, dances and carnival parades that take place, over five days, every year around mid-February. On the first evening, the Den Paolig (poor man in Breton), symbol of the event, is enthroned as king of carnival. Made of chicken wire and papier-mâché, this ten foot (3m) high effigy is moulded to resemble a local personality, whose identity is kept secret until the last moment.
Sunday is the busiest and noisiest day of the week and features the grand parade which brings together people of all ages in colourful costumes and innovative, if wacky, floats. The celebrations are drawn to a close on Ash Wednesday with the trial and conviction (it is always found guilty!) of the Den Paolig who now serves as scapegoat for all the ills of the townsfolk and is ritually burned on a bonfire on a quay in the town’s port, just before the final firework display. This year’s event runs from 22 to 26 February.
Although no longer strictly a part of today’s political Brittany, the old capital city, Nantes, stages one of the biggest and oldest Mardi-Gras carnivals in France. This is a large, colourful event with its roots in the Middle Ages and features, over a week, a series of spectacles and events between the Sunday opening parade and the big night parade the following Saturday. This year, the event will be staged from 29 March to 4 April 2020.
If you do happen to attend one of the many Mardi-Gras celebrations in Brittany, you might wish to bear in mind a hopeful proverb from these parts: ‘If the sun is here for Mardi Gras, it will stay throughout Lent’.