“I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

In the opening song to one of my favorite musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye described the traditions of his hometown Anatevka:

“For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

I have always loved this part because it is a funny and honest explanation that even someone that values their religious traditions doesn’t always understand them. Many traditions in our culture don’t have solid explanations to their origins, and ones centering on religion are always the most interesting in my opinion.

For example, I never understood as a kid why I was forced to eat fish sticks on Fridays in public school because some kids couldn’t eat any other meat on Fridays. Later I learned that it was a Catholic tradition, but I still didn’t understand why it was so important.

So why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?

Fasting is required by the Code of Canon Law for anyone over the age of 14 and under the ago of 60. Ask any devout Catholic and they will explain that it is related to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross: fasting provides a constant reminder of his death and allows an individual the opportunity to contemplate their faith and make reparation for their sins. As for the specific day, according to the Bible, Jesus died on a Friday and so this is the day that should commemorate his sacrifice. However, the specificity of only being allowed to eat fish is less clear.

Fish are linked to parables of Jesus several times in Christian stories, such as the loaves and the fishes, and one of the symbols associated with Christianity is the “Jesus Fish”:

However, the Bible does not specifically mention that people should eat fish on Fridays nor does it literally say that Catholics should fast on Fridays. This unclear source of information has lead to several fun myths regarding the “true” reason for the tradition.

1.   Training the Navy

I was told one myth during a tour of Sulgrave Manor in South Northamptonshire, the ancestral home of George Washington. According to our tour guide Cymon:

Queen Elizabeth I was worried about a potential war with Spain, which was highly feared for its impressive Armada. So she wanted to make the English navy better, and whats the best way to have a highly skilled navy? Have a highly skilled civilian sailor population.

Ensuring that the populous of England could only eat fish on Fridays kept the demand for work high in the fish market ensuring that they were always busy and kept in their prime, ready to answer the call for Queen and country should a war with Spain erupt.

So Elizabeth, who had already been sorting through some religious issues regarding the drastic shift from Catholicism to Protestantism by her father Henry VIII, simply added this in when no one was looking.

In reality, there is absolutely no evidence nor references to this theory anywhere, so I’ve always been curious as to where our supposedly ex-history professor guide came up with this story.

2.   The Pope’s secret profits

Another myth involves a secret pact between the Pope and the leaders of the fishing industry. The Pope decreed that Catholics could only eat fish on Fridays so they could both profit from an increase in fish sales. While this is also probably not the case, there is no denying that the fishing industry did greatly profit from this rule.

3.  The importance of the Fishing Industry

Another myth centering on fishing seems even less likely: when Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England, the eating of fish became political – it implied a support of the Catholic Pope.

Fish sales supposedly declined and the fishing industry was hurt, which in turn hurt tax income and the trading industry. This was such a problem that fast days were instated by law to reverse the problems.

Unfortunately, the problem with this myth is that fish are already associated with Catholic traditions before the reinstatement of a fasting law.  So the law may have helped continue the tradition, but it by no means explains its origin.

So what is the real truth?

Sadly, it is likely that it did not involve a political ploy or religious scandal. It also is not the result of a literal translation of the Bible. More likely it is the result of a mistranslation of the Bible:

First off, technically, it is only the eating of warmblooded animals that is off limits, so fish technically are edible on Fridays.

The way the word “meat” is translated from Latin, it implies something that is “bloody” flesh, from the word caro – but fish meat is not considered bloody or really considered flesh by any definition, so perhaps it was assumed that fish simply did not count in the fasting rules.

Or, because Catholics were expected to abstain from “special foods” on Fridays in order to be reminded of Christ’s sacrifices, it is plausible that fish wasn’t really considered a special food and thus not applicable to the ban. This is likely because fish was such an integral part of the diet of the time that it wasn’t banned because it simply couldn’t be omitted from the diet.

So in all reality, the Friday Fish Fry is probably due to a translation based on the culture of the Medieval era, which turned into a tradition that Catholics still honor to keep their faith. If only the Pope had made a secret agreement with the fishing industry, it would have made the story so much more interesting.

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2 thoughts on ““I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

  1. oarubio says:

    Interesting article! Actually, we Catholics are not instructed to eat fish on Fridays in Lent. It is abstinence from meat as a way of doing a little self-sacrifice in honor of what Christ did for us on Good Friday. For centuries, poorer Catholic countries were not obligated to abstain from meat during specified times because meat was not plentiful. Consequently, it would not have been a sacrifice.

    Regarding traditions, St. Paul reminded us to keep the traditions which had been taught. This was necessary because the New Testament had not been compiled yet. The Bible is true, but it does not contain all the information and guidance we need which is why Paul said what he said and why Jesus told his apostles to go and teach what they had been taught. (For example, the Trinity is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, nor is the obligation to go to church on Sunday. Nevertheless, they are to be understood.)

    We are fortunate to have the continuity of the Church’s teaching. The world is changing dramatically. While the Bible is the perfect blueprint for a good life, language and technology changes require a wise interpretation so that we know how to do what’s right.

    • dawneu says:

      Thanks for your comment! In topics such as these, its always important to have more points of view. Having not grown up Catholic, I wrote this from my research into the question, so its great to hear from a practicing Catholic on the topic as well.

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