George Bernard Shaw was an atheist, yet he observed Lent.
Don't scoff. He believed Lent a perfect occasion "for giving up reading other people's books."
Every year at this time--between Ash Wednesday, when people empty ashtrays onto their foreheads, to Easter, when many Americans embark on their annual trek to church--Catholics and a few other Christian sects abstain from something they enjoy. Some give up chocolate. Some give up fried foods. Some give up cigarettes. Some, like Denise Youngblood, promise to avoid making more than 10 anti-Republican comments a day. "I am not giving up food," she says. "I need all the calories I can get." Abstaining from organ meats or brussels sprouts doesn't count.
Before the 800s, the Roman Catholics enforced a rather strict fast during Lent, abstaining from meat, dairy products, and alcohol. For 40 days. Of course, in those days, the church flogged nonbelievers. Today, according to Gallup polls, a whopping 96 percent of Americans claim some form of belief in God, but only 40 percent show up in church. The church now asks for symbolic self-sacrifice. "Usually, it's something difficult to give up, otherwise it wouldn't be a sacrifice," explains a worker at Dallas' Roman Catholic Diocese who would not reveal her name. Perhaps she fears reprisals. With no threat of the rack or a good, sound thrashing hanging over his head, Catholics like John Mendoza safely avoid the requirements of Lent. "I usually give up alcohol," he says. "But this year, I'm not going to do it because I took a new job."
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So, some people partake of sacrifice by denying themselves a favorite food or activity, while others ignore the whole thing. The question, then, remains: Does Lent affect restaurant sales?
"It affects us big time," says Sam Stull, assistant manager at Rockfish, a seafood restaurant. "We get slammed every Friday during Lent." (Meatless Fridays during Lent are another Catholic tradition.) Rockfish copes with the Lenten rush by hiring extra servers and ordering more stock. On the other hand, Santos MonJarraz at Frijoles, a Mexican restaurant, expects no change in sales. "We use to do special meals," he explains, "but no luck. The largest percentage of people we get still want the usual Mexican food."
A number of restaurants offer Lenten specials, and clearly some restaurants endure a rush on seafood. But for others, it's just another spring (Lent comes from the Old English "Lencten," meaning spring.).
Now, Fat Tuesday--that's another matter.