A brief history of Shrove Tuesday traditions

A brief history of Shrove Tuesday traditions - pancakes

Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day: pancake perfection or a flipping nightmare?

Observed across the world, Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday, is more than an excuse to call someone a tosser and a day when it’s okay to throw food around the kitchen.

However you like your pancakes, here’s everything you wanted to know about Shrove Tuesday but were afraid to ask.

What is Shrove Tuesday?

Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday.

The date of Ash Wednesday is determined by Easter – and that, as we know, is a moveable feast.  And Ash Wednesday is the day before Lent begins.

But Shrove Tuesday of course, existed long before it became associated with pancake races and pigging out on pancakes.

Like so many things, the day and even the pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deep religious roots.

Penitence

As this BBC article explains, as the last day before Lent begins, Shrove Tuesday is a day of penitence. It’s a day to clean the soul and celebrate the last chance of a good nosh before Lent gets underway.

The day gets its name from the ritual of shriving. Shriving is something that Christians once underwent to confess their sins and receive absolution for them.

This tradition goes back easily 1000 years – so well before Nutella was invented.

So why the association with pancakes then?

Lent is a period of abstinence. Thus one reason for it is to mark the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. Before Lent began one forbidden foods such as fats, eggs and milk were used up rather than being wasted. 

And pancakes were and are the perfect way to do just that.

Let me take you to the Mardi Gras

Indeed, in La Belle France, this need to eat up fats gave rise to the term Mardi Gras – or fat Tuesday.

This infographic shows what other countries eat on pancake day – many of them quite similar to the UK.

Pancake traditions round the world
Pancake traditions round the world

For some super drool-inducing pancake photographs go here.

This Historic UK article explains that the pancake has a long history and features in history books as far back as 1439. It seems the practice of tossing or flipping them is almost as old:

“And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.” (Pasquil’s Palin, 1619).

The article goes on to explain that the ingredients for pancakes may symbolise four points of significance at this time of year:

Eggs ~ Creation
Flour ~ The staff of life
Salt ~ Wholesomeness
Milk ~ Purity

Ash Wednesday

Nothing to do with cricket, the ashes used in services on Ash Wedneday, come as the BBC article explains, from burning the palm crosses blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

A race to the finish

In the UK at least, pancake races form an integral part of the Shrove Tuesday celebrations. As Historic UK says about the pancake race: they are ‘an opportunity for large numbers of people, often in fancy dress, to race down streets tossing pancakes. The object of the race is to get to the finishing line first, carrying a frying pan with a cooked pancake in it and flipping the pancake as you run.’

The UK’s most famous pancake race takes place in Olney in Buckinghamshire. Tradition has it that, in 1445, a woman of Olney heard the shriving bell from the church as she made pancakes. She ran to the church in her apron still clutching her frying pan!

From that day forth the Olney pancake race has gone from strength to strength and is now world famous.

Here’s a pancake day race from a few years back:

Get cracking

So, now you know the ins and outs of Shriving and pancakes it’s time to get in the kitchen and get cracking. See what I did there – cracking? Oh please yourself!

Here’s a BBC recipe for pancakes: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/2907669/easy-pancakes

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2 Comments A brief history of Shrove Tuesday traditions

  1. AvatarMartin Jarvis

    Our pancakes tend to be savoury ones these days. I find the sweet ones a little too… sweet. We bring some buckweat flour back from France and use it to cook galettes. You can use just about any savoury combination as a filling.

    Reply
    1. AngelaAngela

      Ah. Yes. I like a savoury pancake too. I went to Eggelicious today for a fenugreek pancake. Okay – two fenugreek pancakes! Just divine. I’ve had buckwheat pancakes in Normandy – gorgeous. I rather like a pancake flambed with brandy and wee sprinkle of sugar. That’s okay. But not tons of syrup and all that stuff no.

      Reply

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