I'm giving up on giving up for Lent, having fun instead

By Ellie Buchdahl ( China Daily ) Updated: 2012-02-23 13:06:44

I'm giving up on giving up for Lent, having fun instead

"My name is Ellie. I washed chocolate off my hands this morning."

They all understood.

In the past 39 days, they, too, had smiled falsely and said, "Oh thank you!" upon receipt of a Belgian seashell truffle, only to slip it surreptitiously into the bin. They had pushed aside gin and tonics. They had crumpled cigarettes in one hand.

Not long, we thought. Not long until Easter. The self-inflicted torture of Lent will be at an end.

Once upon a time, Lent was a Christian fast lasting for the 40 days until Easter, the length of time Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil.

Nowadays - where I am from in the UK, at least - Lent has little to do with Jesus, God or Christianity.

Like most religious festivals, it has become a fashion statement. Anyone who is anyone gives up some vice or other for Lent, a vice that they discuss with other Lenters like a death knell, as if the anti-treat Gestapo were standing over them.

Self-denial is a tempting prospect, especially at this time of year.

Ash Wednesday (the first day) is on February 22 this year, a couple of months after Christmas - enough time to forget how great the brandy butter tasted straight from the tub but not long enough to shift the bulge that resulted from eating said butter and that now splurges over our suddenly too skinny jeans.

Add to that lurking knowledge that summer is coming, bringing with it the dreaded "bikini body" drive.

Finally, add a generous pinch of our general love of binge, purge and atone, of sin and penance, that brought us indulgence sales in the Middle Ages and carbon offsetting nowadays, and you've got the requisite guilt that spawns Lent.

Conspicuous restraint, like all fashions, is self-perpetuating. It takes one person to brag: "I've given up alcohol and cigarettes", for everyone to join in with the orgy of self-denial.

Back in the UK, I Lented with the best of them. One year, I even gave up chocolate, cheese and cake. My smugness outshone my permanent sugar low.

Among my expat friends in China, however, the fasting fad doesn't seem to feature.

On the day that I proudly announced, "I'm giving up beer", one friend responded with a single word: "Why?"

With that one word, I realized how illogical I had been.

For starters (as he pointed out) I'm not a Christian. But it's more than that.

When I look back, I realize that my various Lents always made me a worse person - smugger, grouchier (thanks to the hunger) and endowed with more bad habits to replace all those I had given up.

For want of hot chocolate, I took up coffee. Now, I can't function without it.

Ditto for chewing gum. Initially, it was to take my mind off the lack of cake. Now, my jaws rarely cease chomping in a manner that my mother describes as "common".

But Lent's main downside is that it lasts 40 days. Once those 40 are up, any new leaves turned go back to the way they were.

Easter Sunday is binge day, when you consume all the lard and carbs you so sorely missed. Every kilo lost comes back with a vengeance.

Even Lenters who go down the selfless "I'm going to take up something good for Lent" route fall at this 40-day hole.

I had a friend who declared she was going to do a "good deed" every day. At the time I drooled with envy at her altruism.

Now I wonder whether, come Easter, she sighed with relief and went back to looking out for No 1.

Expats in any country don't exactly have a reputation for abstinence. But at least the non-Lenters of Beijing are honest about their excess.

What that "why" meant was: Why pretend to be virtuous for 40 days if you're going to give up on day 41? Why not just carry on having fun? And I have to say, I agree.

Leave the chocolate hand washing to the Lenters back home. This year, I wash my hands of giving up. I'm giving up Lent - and not just for Lent.

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