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Don't give up on giving up


Religion truly is an amazing thing. And I am not saying that flippantly. Truly I am not. Religion brings you peace and serenity and a sense of community and a whole host of other blessings - many of them deeply personal. 

And in my case, it has also brought about a much-needed weight loss of 1.5 kg.

All thanks to Lent.

Without being a religious nut, I am a secret fan of this 46-day period preceding Easter, when Christians traditionally 'give up' something they like - and more often than not, it's in the food or drink department.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends 46 long days later, on Easter Sunday morning. This year, Lent started on February 13, thereby mucking up Valentine's Day for many people. No chocolates or sparkling wine, thank you very much.

For as long as I can remember, I have religiously 'given up' something for Lent. I think I must have been six or seven years old when my Irish-Catholic mother suggested that I give up sweets for Lent. Too young to understand the liturgy behind this sacrifice, I had vague notions that by not eating sweets I was somehow helping God. Never really figured it out, but year after year, we would give up sweets or chocolate - or Mars bars or biscuits or sugar in our tea - treats, basically. And usually unhealthy ones. No one ever gives up fruit or salad for Lent, please note.

For the longest time it was chocolate. 46 days and 46 nights (never, ever underestimate those nights) minus chocolate were indeed a great penance as a young child, and as Easter Sunday drew closer, with the promise of chocolate eggs, Lent became a real test of mind over matter.

When I in turn became a mother, I prompted my own two children to do the same thing, with an admittedly fairly wooly liturgical logic. I told my children that it was good to refrain from treats from time to time, in a vague sort of moral, character-building way, and for many years, the three of us would go chocolate-less for those oh-so-long 46 days and 46 nights.

A quick word on those numbers.

Everyone blithely refers to Lent as lasting the so-called, oft-quoted biblical '40 days and 40 nights'. What they cunningly forget to tell you when you are a child, is that Sundays are excluded from these 40 days (and 40 nights) so it's actually 40 plus all those Sundays. That's nearly a whole chocolate-less week extra.
For many years, there would be three chocolate deprived chocoholics in the house - my Indian hubby does not get involved in this annual ritual. But boy did Easter Sunday make up for the weeks of deprivation. The dragon mother that I apparently was/am was put on hold on Easter Sunday, and I would wake the children up at midnight, the very second Lent ended, so that they could eat chocolate. There they would sit up in bed, half asleep, scoffing chocolate and being praised for it, for once.

One year we were on holiday in Kenya, and I dutifully lugged chocolate eggs all the way there in my suitcase, secreting them in the hotel minibar, in case they melted in the African sun. As my children sat up in their hotel beds, eating chocolate at midnight, as ritual demanded, they both sweetly told me that they had actually spotted the eggs days earlier, but didn't want to spoil my surprise.

I remember vividly one year when I idiotically announced that I would go for broke by giving up wine and chocolate and getting cross with the children. That lasted precisely one day. It was either a glass of wine or GBH (grievous body harm).

As my children grew up, they wanted a certain degree of autonomy in the self-denial stakes and asked to be allowed to choose their own Lenten sacrifices. Hari in particular would come up with ever more inventive things to give up for Lent. I'll give up fruit was one suggestion. Nice try. I'll give up piano practice, nice try Mark II. I'll give up homework. Nice try Mark III.

One year, they micro-managed Lent by deciding which one particular make of biscuits they would give up for God. I think it was plain old Marie biscuits, leaving Oreos firmly on the menu.

I am quite sure the good Lord above didn't mind one way or the other. It was the thought that counted. A staunchly agnostic friend once told me rather patronizingly, 'It speaks volumes about your faith that the biggest thing you can do for your God is give up chocolate', which was a tad cruel, but probably how Lent must indeed seem to non-Christians. But Lent is more than just the temporary fasting. It is a conscious decision to abstain from something you enjoy, as part of a mental and spiritual preparation for Easter, which is the religious highlight of the Christian calendar. We are, after all, marking the death of Jesus on the cross and his Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning, so a little bit of self-denial can't do anyone any harm, now, can it?

Many people I know who are not especially religious - or even Christian in one case - still give up things for Lent. Call it a health kick, if you will, but there's nothing wrong with cutting back on the goodies for 40 - sorry, 46 - days. Having lost the taste for sugar in my tea after one Lent, and a few years ago even lost the taste for chocolate after another Lent, I am sort of hoping that wine will be next on the list.

The thoughts of those 1.5 kilos slipping back around my waist are deeply depressing.

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