Anita Robinson: Guilty memories of burgling the Lenten sweetie jar

As Easter eggs accumulated in the sideboard during Lent, the daily chore of setting the dinner table became an exquisitely refined form of psychological torture
As Easter eggs accumulated in the sideboard during Lent, the daily chore of setting the dinner table became an exquisitely refined form of psychological torture

IN the rainbow-coloured days of remembered childhood, Lent was relentlessly grey.

Forty days of unremitting gloom punctuated by one of gloriously green self-indulgence from which the countdown to the egg-yolk yellow of Easter could be longingly begun.

Poor St Patrick! Try as I might to associate his day with the advent of Christianity, the banishment of snakes, or the strange predilection of some people to parade in horizontal rain to the accompaniment of an accordion band, my most vivid memories are of being green at the gills from a surfeit of sweets.

The concept of self-denial was inculcated early. Any negative, bad or unpleasant thing like the cancellation of a treat, vile-tasting medicine or getting your hair put in curl papers on a Saturday night for ringlets on Sunday, was to be offered up uncomplainingly for the Holy Souls.

The Holy Souls, our imperfect understanding led us to believe, were an unfortunate set of spirits whose transgressions when alive had earned them the punishment of being lightly grilled both sides in Purgatory when they died.

Apparently our earthly disappointment, remorse or sacrifice, if willingly offered up, was enough to release them.

In a long and scrupulously sacrificial childhood I must have offered up sufficient to clear the place entirely.

The idea that mortification of the flesh was good for the soul was endemic.

In the absence of our volunteering to give up things for Lent, our parents did it for us and informed us of our sacrifice.

Oddly enough, for the other 46 weeks of the year, our infant hearts were rent and withers wrung with vivid accounts of starveling, skeletal children in the third world.

We were encouraged to eat up or there'd inevitably come a day when we'd "follow the crows for it" as they had in famine times. Now, for this six weeks, we were commanded to rein ourselves in. Though not to suffer the daily exigencies of "one meal and two collations", we understood that we were entering a treat-free phase.

Cake, biscuits and jam disappeared, as did sugar on your porridge or in your tea. Fruit, being expensive, was a rare substitute and I certainly never remember getting a whole apple or orange to myself.

My brother, with a well-developed sense of retrospective injustice, used to say he was reared on half-cups of tea and half-bananas, but he grew to six foot two, so it obviously did him no lasting damage.

A tall screw-topped sweetie jar was begged from the shop at the bottom of the street and into this we put, under supervision, all the sweets you were given between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday.

Worse still, as generous relatives donated Easter eggs, a kind of shrine evolved behind the cruets and sauce bottles in the dark of the dining room sideboard.

As the eggs accumulated, the daily chore of setting the dinner table became an exquisitely refined form of psychological torture. When you reached into its dim recesses for the salt and pepper, the salad cream or pickles, your eye was caught by the oval-shaped glimmer of coloured foils flanking like sentinels the stained glass grail of the sweetie-jar, its sides mosaiced with dolly mixtures, glowing with the rubies of clove rock, the amber of brandy balls, the crinkled sheen of cellophane wrapped toffees, the luminosity of lollipops, the sticky jewels of fruit drops, all congealing happily together in the cedar-smelling warmth of the sideboard - all as inaccessible as unassailable as Fort Knox.

Lenten days seemed permeated by the wet-knicker smell of fish.

The herring man called in the street more frequently than usual and the cloying glar of parsley sauce tainted everything on the dinner plate it came in contact with.

I had an almost superstitious terror of swallowing the small hair-like fish bones which, I believed, wedged themselves horizontally across your gullet like a grating and choked you to death, or else punctured your windpipe so you expired in gurgling agonies.

Whence these myths arose I know not, but I remember the taste and feel of fish revolving in my mouth like chewed newspaper with pins in it and I couldn't have swallowed it to save my life.

The prospect of the St Patrick's day blow-out did not preclude one from falling into temptation at other times.

How frequently when not overlooked, the Judas hand crept towards the jar in the sideboard and how heavy the burden of knowledge in the aftermath, that even if your mother never found out, God knew, and the reproachful eyes of the Holy Souls (whom you'd let down) haunted your dreams.

I know people who are too frightened and ashamed to go back to organisations like WeightWatchers or Unislim because they've fallen from grace into greed. Tell you what - it's nothing like as bad as burgling a sweetie-jar on a Good Friday evening while the others are out at church!

I think what a lot of us need to give up for Lent is guilt.

:: This column first appeared in The Irish News in February 2002 and is being reprinted in memory of our much-loved columnist who died on February 1, 2022.