Russian artist Boris Kustodiev’s Maslenitsa (1916)
I never thought about the origin of Lent, so I was interested to read this history on Wikipedia:
“It is probably impossible to know when the tradition of marking the start of Lent began. Ælfric of Eynsham’s “Ecclesiastical Institutes” of about A.D. 1000 includes: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]”.
Some suggest that the Pancake Tuesday was originally a pagan holiday. Before the Christian era, the Slavs believed that the change of seasons was a struggle between Jarilo, the god of vegetation, fertility and springtime, and the evil spirits of cold and darkness. People believed that they had to help Jarilo fight against winter and bring in the spring. The most important part of Maslenitsa week (the whole celebration of the arrival of spring lasted one week) was making and eating pancakes. The hot, round pancakes symbolized the sun. The Slavs believed that by eating pancakes, they got the power, light and warmth of the sun. The first pancake was usually put on a window for the spirits of the ancestors. On the last day of Maslenitsa week some pancakes and other food were burnt in a bonfire as a sacrifice to the pagan gods.”
I read somewhere that housekeepers wanted to use up all of the food that would spoil during the period of Lent and that is how Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday came to be. In the time before refrigeration butter, oil and meat might go off during the the 40 days of Lent and so were used up in Mardi Gras feasting.
In the festivals listed on Wikipedia, pancakes, green peas, and general merry making feature in many cultures on this day before Ash Wednesday.