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“Many people were sceptical of the strict fasting rules that the Catholic Church would impose on them when Christianity first arrived in the country,” says Professor Helje Kringlebotn Sødal.

Ready for 40 days of abstinence?

When Norway was a Catholic country, it was customary to indulge in a rich and filling meal on Fat Tuesday. All festivities and merriment were to be completed before the long period of fasting leading up to Easter began on Ash Wednesday.

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday. Today, February 14th, is Ash Wednesday. Next year, the day falls on the 5th of March.

In the past, Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of 40 days during which no meat or sexual activity was allowed. And no one could get married during this fasting period.

Lent in the Church of Norway is a period of 40 days, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Saturday. The Sundays during this period are not considered days of fasting.

Used to shape daily life in the past 

The Norwegian Middle Ages are considered to be from around 1050 to the Reformation in 1536. This was a period of Catholicism. During that time, the Lenten period was more intrusive in the daily lives of most people than it is now.

Shrove Sunday, Shrove Monday, Fat Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday signalled both celebration and seriousness.

Shrove Monday, known as Blue Monday in Norwegian, refers to both church and folk traditions. While the day may have been a ‘blue Monday’ for servants who had been partying in the days preceding it, it had a different significance for the church.

On Shrove Monday, the priests covered the altar with a blue cloth. This signified the start of the fasting period for the priests, two days prior to Ash Wednesday.

Fat Tuesday was the final day of eating and festivities before the start of the fasting period. It was important to eat well on this day, so that people had something to sustain them during the fast.

Ash in your hair for 40 days 

“Ash Wednesday was the first day of fasting. Fasting comes from the word fast. From now on, everyone was to adhere to the church’s rules for fasting and preparation for Easter. People were to change their lives and focus their minds on the holiday. Repentance and reconciliation were part of this, in other words, penance,” says Helje Kringlebotn Sødal.

Sødal is a professor of Christian history at the University of Agder (UiA).

Sackcloth and ashes come from the Bible, and on Ash Wednesday, it was customary to dress in sackcloth and ashes. This was to remind people of their earthly origins and the transient life on Earth that will one day come to an end.

Helje Kringlebotn Sødal,  professor i kristendomshistorie ved Universitetet i Agder (UiA)
"The rules were quite tough," Helje Kringlebotn Sødal says.

Sødal notes that Catholic traditions in many ways had a bodily aspect that was also educational. People experienced with their bodies what the liturgy, hymns, and preaching were about.

“During the Middle Ages, they used to sprinkle ash in their hair. You were not supposed to wash yourself until Easter. You were meant to scratch your head to remember Jesus’ suffering and to focus your thoughts on Easter,” says Sødal.

Interfering with daily life 

Sødal says that the strict rules of fasting were among the reasons why farmers and Vikings struggled to embrace Christianity.

“For most people, the rules were quite tough. Meat had the most nutrition and calories, but it was not allowed to be eatem. You could also not get married during this period. And you had to abstain from sex,” says Sødal.

Regulations and restrictions during the fasting period were one of the reasons why Vikings and farmers found it hard to accept the new faith in the early Christianisation period around 700-1000.

“The new faith had a very regulatory impact on people’s lives. Fasting and moderation were a concrete and clear expression of faith. You had to change your lifestyle. But it helped that people did it together,” says Sødal.

The Gulating law conveyed the Catholic regulations. There was a prohibition on eating meat, a prohibition on getting married, and a prohibition on having sex. Fines were imposed if you broke the law.

Church and folk traditions 

‘Fastelavn’ eventually became a common term for Shrove Sunday, Shrove Monday, and Fat Tuesday. These days were usually three days of festive celebrations before Ash Wednesday and the fasting period.

In Southern Europe, carnival was common. Carnival means ‘farewell to meat’, and it meant a farewell to meat, both in terms of food and sex. But first, there was a festival.

“In this way, folk and church traditions could intertwine. Carnival, festivals, and indulgence were not inventions of the church but popular traditions that contrasted with the forthcoming period of fasting and abstinence. The church generally accepted this,” says Sødal. 

Strict until the Reformation 

Ash Wednesday is an early tradition, and 40 days of fasting was a common practice as early as the 4th century. This day marks the beginning of Lent, which continues until Easter. Christianity has inherited the tradition of fasting from Judaism.

“In many religions, it's about abstaining from something during certain periods. You should devote your time and attention to God and what is not material or mundane,” says Sødal.

By the 6th century, there was more consensus on what types of foods to avoid: meat, milk, cheese, and butter. However, throughout history, views have differed around what not to eat and how little to eat.

While there were strict rules regarding fasting during the Catholic era in Norway, the rules were abolished following the Reformation in 1536-37. 

Fasting and giving 

The rules have generally become more lenient and less specific. In recent times, the rules for Catholics in Norway are not even clear about having to renounce all meat.

“Renunciation in fasting, from a Christian perspective, is not about showing yourself as piously fasting, or about losing weight. It’s about focusing on the most important aspect of life, your relationship with God,” says Sødal.

She reminds us that our relationship with God should have an impact on our relationship with others. That is why the period of fasting is just as much about giving to someone in need.

“It could be physical things such as food and clothing, or spiritual things like encouragement and thoughtfulness,” says Sødal.


Hodne, Ø. 'Påske. Tradisjoner omkring en høytid' (Easter. Traditions surrounding a holiday), Novus forlag, 1988. (Publisher’s information on the book)


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

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