‘The three Sundays preceding Lent are called Septuagesima (seventieth), Sexagesima (sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth). Actually they are not the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days before Easter as their names would indicate. These titles seem to have been arbitrarily chosen for the sake of round numbers, in keeping with the much older term of Quadragesima (fortieth) which denotes the first Sunday of Lent.
The preparatory time of pre-Lent was established by the practice of the Greek Church, which started its great fast earlier than the Roman Church did. We find the pre-Lenten Sundays mentioned as early as 541, in the fourth Council of Orleans. At the time of pope Saint Gregory I (604) they were already celebrated in Rome with the same liturgical Mass texts that are used today.
The spirit of pre-Lent is one of penance, devotion, and atonement, the Sunday Masses and the liturgical rules reflecting this character. The Gloria is omitted, purple vestments are worn, and the altars may no longer be decorated with flowers.
In ancient times, when the law of abstinence was much stricter and included many other foods besides meat, the clergy and a good number of the laity started abstaining progressively during the pre-Lenten season, until they entered the complete fast on Ash Wednesday. After Quinquagesima (i.e., the last Sunday before Lent) this voluntary fasting began with abstinence from meat; consequently, this Sunday was called Dominica carnevala (Farewell-to-meat Sunday), from which comes the word “carnival”. Another, more scholarly, explanation of the derivation of carnival is that it comes from the Latin Carnem levare (carnelevarium) which means “withdrawal” or “removal” of meat.
The Oriental Church, too, abstained first from meat, but began on Sexagesima (the second Sunday before Lent), which is called “Meatless” (apokreo, in Greek; miasopust, in Slavic). With Quinquagesima the Eastern Church began (and still begins) the abstinence from butter, cheese, milk, and eggs. Thus in eastern Europe that day is called “Cheeseless Sunday” (syropust).
In preparation for Lent the faithful in medieval times used to go to confession on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. From this practice, that day became known as “Shrove Tuesday” (the day on which people are shriven from sins). An old English sermon of the eleventh century exhorts the faithful thus: “In the week immediately before Lent, everyone shall go to his confessor; and his confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do”’.
from The Easter Book, 1954, by Fr Francis Weiser SJ, 1901-1986
Fr Lee Kenyon