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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 13:58 GMT 14:58 UK
Give it up for a great Christian tradition

"No! I'm only accepting spiritual nourishment"
"I can't, I've given it up for Lent."

That mournful phrase can be heard up and down the country as Britons stoically turn down offers of a pint, a Mars bar or a cigarette in an annual struggle with temptation.

Prince Charles cited Lent when he ducked out of lunch on Tuesday, while entertaining some of Europe's top chefs at a Gloucestershire farm.

Given the decline in church attendances, a surprising number of Britons still mark the 40-day period which, according to Christian tradition, Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning the ministry which led to his crucifixion.

For such a Christian phenomenon, Lent has become very much a "cultural thing", according to Patricia Hardcastle, spokeswoman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Woman smoking in park
About a million smokers attempt to quit; 40,000 manage it
"Many people who have never darkened the doors of a church still try to give things up," she says. "It's quite nice, really. We can all benefit."

Even a few members of the "dour, cerebral" Church of Scotland have given things up, says the Rev Marjory MacLean, deputy clerk of the church's General Assembly.

"You won't find many of us giving up lunch," she says. "A few would. But more would see it as a time of contemplation and self-knowledge".

Ms Hardcastle says you don't have to be a Christian to benefit from Lenten sacrifices.

"It's a bit like Ramadan, the season of fasting marked by Muslims - purifying the body through sacrifice, in order to have a spiritual gain.

Chocolate bar

"It can make you realise that not having enough chocolate, say, is not the be-all and end-all of life," she says.

Of course, most of us will have given up giving up by now, as we are already three weeks into Lent.

This year, for example, an estimated one million smokers tried to stop on No Smoking Day - which happily coincided with Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.

Girl in bath of chocolate
"Well, I've given up biscuits and crisps"
But organisers expect only 40,000 to quit for good, which suggests that about 960,000 are spending Lent guiltily puffing away.

Others have begun cheating on their sacrifices - drinking numerous glasses of wine because they've given up beer, for example, or chomping through crisps and cakes because they've ditched chocolate.

As far as the aims of Lenten reflection and repentance goes, this is pretty pointless.

"A lot of people use it like New Year's Resolutions," Ms Hardcastle says. "But it's more than that.

"The idea is that by making a sacrifice you will somehow purify your spirit."

Prince Charles at British beef event
Charles: Maybe it wasn't such a sacrifice
She points out that you don't have to give up alcohol, food or cigarettes - you could try being nicer to people or putting more effort into your relationships.

"You may say you're going to start smiling every day at work, or give up shouting at the children when they smear toothpaste on the walls."

Business consultant Judy James says even those who missed the start of Lent could still benefit from quitting bad office habits.

"If the average worker stopped moaning they would find they have about an hour extra a day," she says. "When people stop moaning the change is amazing."

Ms Hardcastle warns not to bite off more than you can chew, however.

Temper temperance

"There's no point in doing it if it's just going to make you snappy with everyone. You are supposed to grow in the Christian virtues.

"I was once told not to give up the fags because it would just make me a snappy cow. My director said I should do us all a favour and carry on smoking."

And you're not going to get much spiritual nourishment from giving up something you don't like anyway.

Prince Charles's sacrifice was put in perspective by a Buckingham Palace spokesman.

"He doesn't enjoy eating in the middle of the day very much in any case," he says. "He does still have breakfast and dinner."

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