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When Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day collide, eat fish

Hash Halper draws chalk hearts in Manhattan, Feb. 6, 2018. For the first time in 73 years, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day, posing culinary challenges for Christians who observe Lent. (Kholood Eid/The New York Times Copyright 2018 / New York Times)

On the solemn day of Ash Wednesday, the faithful abstain from pleasures such as meat and alcohol to remember that we are all dust, destined to die.

On Valentine's Day, the lovestruck indulge in steak dinners and champagne to keep their love alive.

When both holidays fall on Feb. 14 this year, what's a Catholic romantic to do?

Well, the Phoenix Club in Anaheim, California, has one answer: At its evening of dinner and dancing, the all-pink menu offers the "Ash Wednesday specialty: matjes herring filet served with sour cream apples, onions and dill red potatoes." So that you can avoid overindulging on the first day of Lent, the herring special does not come with dessert. (At the next table over, the non-pious will be enjoying "a sweet and delicious heart shape chocolate dessert.")

Catholic bishops are advising parishioners to take their sweethearts out to dinner on a different night, and leave the 14th to Jesus instead of Cupid this year.

"Ash Wednesday is really an even more significant custom in the life of people in the church," said the Rev. Thomas Ferguson, the vicar general for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. "Even though there's the coincidence of the day, it's not going to diminish people's observance of Ash Wednesday, because there's a great fervor for beginning Lent with ashes year after year that amazes me."

While Valentine's Day is named for a third-century Roman martyr, the Catholic church has minimized the religious significance of his feast day since the mid-20th century, because much of what is known about St. Valentine himself is dubious and perhaps mythical. So this is really a collision between a Hallmark holiday and a holy one - and the last time it happened was in 1945.

But some people are getting creative about combining the two holidays.

In Washington's "Little Rome," the neighborhood around Catholic University that's suffused with Catholic institutions, bartender Jordan Williams says he has answered phone calls at Brookland Pint several times in the past few days from people who want to make sure, before they make their Valentine's Day dinner plans, that they'll be able to order a meat-free meal. "We always do keep fish and vegetarian options. We have had call-ins double-checking that," he said. "A lot of people calling for reservations."

If they're drinking alcohol on that Wednesday, Williams adds another offer: "I can make anything pink, if you'd like."

The Clyde's restaurant group, which operates several D.C.-area restaurants popular among Valentine's diners, offered a special on Tuesday this year, the day before Valentine's Day. Spokeswoman Molly Quigley said the special was meant to help couples who can't get a reservation - or perhaps a babysitter - on the popular Wednesday night of the holiday itself. But it's also a good option for those who wanted a Valentine's Day before Lent.

In Exeter, Pennsylvania, Lindo Sabatini of Sabatini's Pizza told the local ABC station that he expected a huge run on special heart-shaped pizza pies, which are a festive meat-free food. "As a pizza shop, Ash Wednesday is a pretty big deal, and for the both of them to be on the same day, it's going to be interesting for us," he said.

Eileen Manta told the station that when she realized the holidays coincided, "I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, what am I going to eat?' " Then she heard that Avenue Restaurant in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, was special-ordering more than 300 lobster tails to meet the demand for fancy fish dinner. Problem solved.

Most U.S. bishops have spoken in one voice, telling parishioners to observe Valentine's Day on a different day this year and focus on Ash Wednesday exclusively.

"In view of the significance of Ash Wednesday the obligation of fast and abstinence must naturally be the priority in the Catholic community," the Archdiocese of Chicago said in a statement, which was similar to opinions offered in many other dioceses. "Valentine's Day can appropriately be celebrated the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which also happens to be Mardi Gras, a traditionally festive time before beginning our Lenten observance."

Ferguson shared that advice but said he might preach a homily on Ash Wednesday that nods to Valentine's Day, too.

"On a spiritual note, I think it's giving a lot of people the opportunity, in a serious way, to take the time for reflection to think about the connection between Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day and what they both say about love. In a lot of ways they're not incompatible, but pretty compatible," he said. "Love really requires commitment and sacrifice and generosity" - for which Jesus, he added, is the ultimate example.

He didn't push for the idea of feasting on fish or pizza - or not quite.

"I don't want you to write this and think that I'm encouraging this, but you could have a very nice lobster dinner and still be observing both Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day," he said.

Author information: Julie Zauzmer is a religion reporter.