By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A season of sacrifice is about to begin for Christians. Lent starts Wednesday and ends on Easter.

Catholics typically give up meat once a week, a tradition that’s made fish fries part of our culture.

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So why do people eat fish on Fridays? Good Question. WCCO’s Jeff Wagner learned it’s rooted in religion and fellowship.

At Coastal Seafoods in St. Paul, a fish’s stay in the display case is starting to shorten.

August Yellowbird, a fish associate at the store, said sales increase “about 30%, specifically because of Lent.”

It’s partly why Robert Hausman stopped in.

“I’m gonna make some chowder, clam chowder. I’m buying some lobster. Cod is what I eat, so I’m good for Lent,” he said.

For 40 days prior to Easter, Christians observe Lent.

About 1,400 years ago, Pope St. Gregory The Great added a rule stating Catholics will abstain from flesh and meat. Back then meat was considered more of a delicacy.

“So what was left to eat was fish,” said Hausman.

So why is meat skipped specifically on Friday in favor of fish?

“To commemorate the fact that Jesus died on a Friday,” said Father Joseph Gillespie, pastor at St. Albert the Great Church in Minneapolis. He adds choosing fish instead of meat is another form of sacrifice.

“I grew up before Vatican II, back in the 40s and 50s, and it was always clear that you would have fish on Fridays,” he said.

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And he means every Friday. It wasn’t until the 1960s that abstaining from meat on Fridays specifically during Lent became a tradition in Catholic households.

St. Albert the Great Church has become well-known for its Friday fish dinners leading up to Easter, often drawing more than a thousand visitors.

“We had people coming who would say, ‘I don’t even like fish but I like what’s going on here. I like the music, I like the people,'” said Gillespie.

That sense of community helped the weekly dinner’s popularity grow, regardless of religion.

“Part of it really is the enjoyment of gathering together,” he said.

This year, COVID-19 means the massive meal gatherings will be put on hold.

“Might you Zoom with someone on Friday who’s eating fish at home?” WCCO’s Jeff Wagner asked Father Gillespie.

“You could, I’m not gonna do it,” said Gillespie. “I’d rather go out and have a fish dinner.”

With restaurants dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, not everyone is eager to head out for a fish dinner. Yellowbird said that has contributed to an overall boost in sales during the pandemic.

“They’re definitely getting more just to cook themselves which is cool,” he said.

To spice up your Friday fish dinner, Yellowbird suggests making sushi or fish tacos. The top fish Minnesotans buy at his store during Lent: halibut, cod, haddock, salmon and, of course, walleye.

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McDonald’s, known for its burgers, sells 300 million fish filet sandwiches a year. The fast food joint said 25% of those sales happen during Lent.

Jeff Wagner