By now, some of you will be contemplating your sternest test – the first Friday of Lent. Those who have foregone alcohol may suffer most. Around about midday, you’ll be lost in mild reverie pondering the simple pleasures of tonight’s first cool pint sloshing down your gullet. And then your face creases in disappointment as you remember you’re supposed to be off ‘the dhthrink’.
Elsewhere on this mortal coil, anyone who has given up sweets is now furiously backtracking. Usually this takes the form of redefining what exactly constitutes sweets. As Lent proceeds, the list of things that are Not Sweets grows long. Eventually you hear yourself say: “Skittles? You couldn’t really call them sweets. They’re more of a crispy shelled candy.”
Not only are there wrangles in the definition of what we give up – a lot of theological debate concerns when we give it up. Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. Faced with such a long period of abstinence, we turn into Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code poring over manuscripts in an effort to redefine Lent. Here’s an excerpt from my new religous confectionary thriller “The Omega Pastille”
“…. O’Regan ran his fingers through his lustrous hair. It was cropped fashionably short and flecked with grey. Combined with his chiselled cheekbones and easy athletic gait, it gave him an air of authoritative sexiness which mysterious French-sounding women went mad for. He read the excerpt from the Gospel of Luke, an ancient tome that he discovered that morning buried in an old bookshop called Easons. As his eyes scanned the parchment, one line jumped out at him, as if it wanted to get his attention.
‘Jesus was led into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days’
Forty Days… How many days were there between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday? O’Regan did a quick mental calculation. Forty Six Days. How many Sundays in Lent? Six.
O’Regan’s breath was shallow as his excitement grew. That could only mean one thing.
Sundays didn’t count. He could eat sweets on a Sunday!
O’Regan’s hands shook as he started to eat a Double Decker. It had gone a little melty in his pocket but that was nothing when compared to the significance of his discovery. A shadow crossed his face. He turned to look up but it was too late. Everything went black as some Freemason-type hit him in the back of the head with his trademark weapon – a lead pipe carved to look like a Curly-Wurly….”
While we might take advantage of these counting anomalies, there is certainly no evidence that Jesus took a break from his fast every six days. When Satan arrived to tempt him, he didn’t find Jesus eating a biscuit. Which is just as well as St. Luke would have struggled to include the following passage in a Gospel.
Satan (incredulously) “What’s all this, I thought you were off everything?”
Jesus – “It’s grand, it’s Sunday”
Satan – “So what if it’s Sunday. And anyway I thought Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath?”
Jesus (knowing smile) “Oh you’ll see, Satan, you’ll see”
While the Sunday argument is a little threadbare, in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day is a more official sweet-eating holiday. It’s origins are unclear. Some scholars contend that St. Patrick himself brought it in. He was trying to placate pagans, who were distraught at the mysterious disappearance of their pet snakes.
For me 1989 stands out as a high watermark of St Patrick’s Day gluttony. Easter was early that year, which meant St Patrick’s Day was towards the end of Lent. By the time March 17th came, I fell off the wagon like Amy Winehouse. In the car on the way home from Mass I was already ‘hitting it hard’. I knocked back a cocktail of Chipsticks followed by Refresher Bars – a practice known as ‘Chasing the Dragon’. What was different about 1989 was that it was also the year of the Cheap Sweets.
In Cork at that time, there used to be a wholesaler called Jack Caterstore. His real name wasn’t Jack Caterstore. My father had evolved a relatively simple method of identifying key people in our lives via their Christian name and what they did: Jack Cater-store, Jack the Combine, and of course Jack Inseminator the man from the AI. (JI arrived every so often, opened the back of his van, brought out some mysterious vials, walked to where the cows were all waiting excitedly and… well I was too small to see over the gate…)
We used to go to Jack Caterstore for 25kg bags of sugar. It took so long to finish a bag that by the time you got the bottom, the sugar was 48% ant. As well as selling false economies, Jack Caterstore briefly had a little wheeze going where he let it be known to a few select clientele that he would be selling off a significant amount of out-of-date sweets and chocolate.
If there’s one thing people in Cork will go mad for, it’s cheap out-of-date food. Centuries of civilisation may have bred our intuitions out of us. But when it comes to telling whether cheap chocolate is ‘gone off’ or not, an ancient animal instinct is awakened. We are transported back to the primeval forest floor where we cautiously eat an ancestor of the Crème Egg. Slowly, then with a yelp, we pronounce it safe for the tribe.
Unfortunately, it was all too good to last. If there was one other thing people in Cork went mad for, it was Compo. Some foolah fed too many Penguins to his son in lieu of proper nutrition. The child got sick. The parent, spotting the inate weakness of Jack Caterstore’s position extended a litigious hand outwards. That was the end of the Cheap Sweets. Before that happened however, we had already taken delivery of 200 Crème Eggs, 150 Five-Four-Three-Two-Ones as well as a few bushels of Penguins.
Satan arrived one day, promising me the riches of the World.
I told him I had everything I needed.