It will be Ash Wednesday on 9 March, the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar, the forty-day period of fasting and penance leading up to Easter, and replicating Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert prior to his crucifixion.
The official observance of Lent has been somewhat relaxed by the Christian Churches during the later twentieth century, but the popular tradition of giving something up for Lent is apparently far from extinguished.
This rather surprising resilience of Lenten abstinence is seemingly confirmed in a newly-released YouGov poll, conducted online between 25 and 28 February 2011 among 2,055 Britons aged 18 and over. The data tables will be found at:
Although 73% of respondents were not planning to give anything up for Lent this year, the inference is that the other 27% intended to forego something.
Abstainers were particularly likely to be found among adults with children in the household (32%), residents of the Midlands (32%), women (31%), and Londoners (31%).
Least abstemious were the Scots, only 21% of whom were going to give something up, followed by the Welsh (23%), men (24%), and the over-55s (24%).
YouGov provided no breakdown by religious affiliation, but a survey of professing Roman Catholics by nfp Synergy in 2008 revealed that 31% had given up something for Lent.
Comparative statistics (chronologically) are not easy to come by. However, an abstinence rate of 27% is certainly high in relation to previous Gallup studies: 12% in 1939, 8% in 1993 and 9% in 1996.
A survey for Abbey National in 2002 suggested that one-third expected to forsake a treat during Lent, but the sample was small (only 200 people) and confined to adults aged 18-50.
Were YouGov’s respondents simply being over ‘optimistic’ about their intentions?
Were they drawn into exaggeration by the wording of the question, which some might regard as ‘leading’?
Were they confusing Lenten sacrifice with the personal austerity and belt-tightening now necessary because of the poor state of the economy and public expenditure cuts?
Or is there a genuine revival of Lenten observance, even though most other religious indicators are moving downwards or, occasionally, stabilizing?
Another equally curious and unexpected discovery comes from a survey by Somerfield in 2007 in which 70% of adults chose, from a preset list of options, the answer that Lent commemorated the time which Jesus spent in the wilderness.
Chocolate topped YouGov’s list of proposed sacrifices in 2011 (8%). Then came junk food (7%), sweets (6%), alcohol (6%), smoking (3%), fizzy drinks (3%), swearing (3%), coffee (2%), sugar (2%), tea (1%), all caffeine (1%), and meat (1%). Multiple answers were evidently possible.
Few of these choices reached double figures. 10% of Londoners and adults with children in the household aspired to give up junk food for Lent, but otherwise all the highs were for chocolate, mentioned by 12% of Midlanders, 11% of women, and 10% of those aged 25-34.
Chocolates and sweets topped the list of Lenten sacrifices in the earlier Gallup polls. Meat was a significant forfeit in 1939, but is much less so now.
Ash Wednesday is preceded by Shrove Tuesday, traditionally Pancake Day. 49% of YouGov’s interviewees expected to eat pancakes on that day, and a further 32% said that they might do so.
Pancake refuseniks numbered 19%, including 2% who claimed never to eat pancakes. The proportion was highest among Scots (31%) and then among men and Londoners (25% each).
Of those definitely planning to tuck into pancakes, most were going to indulge on a grand scale. Just 3% thought they would be content with one pancake. 31% had two pancakes in mind, 31% three, 24% four or five, and 9% six or more.
Lemon and sugar was the favourite pancake topping or filling for 65%, followed by maple syrup (27%). 64% preferred sweet pancakes to savoury ones, 10% liked savoury better, and 21% enjoyed both types.
Chapter 16 in Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996) summarizes the social history of Lent in Britain. The only study of the limited survey evidence is Clive Field, ‘Who’s for Lent?’, Quadrant, March 1998, pp. 2-3.