Understanding Pancake Day Traditions
The name Shrove comes from the old English word scrifan, to ‘shrive’, which means to confess sins and unburden yourself of worries. On Shrove Tuesday Christians traditionally confess their sins so that they are forgiven before the fasting season of Lent begins. In the UK and Ireland Shrove Tuesday is also called by the more prosaic name ‘Pancake Day’ or ‘Pancake Tuesday’.
Shrove Tuesday is the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and 47 days before Easter Sunday. As Lent and Easter Sunday are not fixed calendar days, (they are calculated each year) they fall on different dates each year, and therefore Shrove Tuesday also falls on different dates each year.
Lent in the Christian calendar is a time of abstinence and fasting for forty days. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge and fatten up – this is why other countries call it ‘Fat Tuesday’; it is also ideally the last chance to use up all the foods which are not allowed by the Christian teachings during fasting, and which would go off and perish during the forty days – pancakes provide a convenient way of using up the common (forbidden) household ingredients of fat, butter and eggs before the beginning of Lent.
The Pancake Bell
Shrove Tuesday, after the morning religious observances, was quite a raucous affair, with people letting off steam before the start of Lent the next day. And all this was signalled by the ringing of the ‘pancake-bell’.
From ‘The Boy’s Yearly Book‘ published in 1863, “Shrove Tuesday means Confession Tuesday, on which day all the people in every parish throughout the kingdom, were obliged to confess their sins, one by one, to their own parish priests, in their own parish churches; and that this might be done more regularly, a great bell is rung in every parish at 10 o’clock or sooner, that it might be heard by all. Yet the custom of ringing the great bell in our parish churches, at least in some of them, still remains, and obtains in and about London the name of “Pancake Bell” [from] the usage of dining on pancakes or fritters and such like provision.”
Of the pancake-bell, Taylor in 1630, had this to say. “Shrove Tuesday, at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdom is inquiet; but by that time the clocke strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell rung, cal’d the pancake bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manners or humanitie; then there is a thing called wheaten floure, which the cookes do mingle with water, egges, spice, and other tragical, magicall inchantments; and then they put it, by little and little, into a frying-pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal! hissing until at last, by the skill of the cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a flip-jack cal’d a pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily.”
Pancake Races & Other Sports
Pancake races have been held as early as the Medieval Period, with the famous race at Olney in Buckinghamshire, going back to at least 1445 A.D., a race which is open to housewives who run a 415 yard course, in which the pancake must be tossed at least three times from the pan – the winner and runner up receive a prayer book and a kiss from the verger. Traditionally, when men want to participate, they must dress up as a housewife.
In England, as part of a larger local community celebration, many towns still hold traditional Shrove Tuesday football games, often referred to as ‘Mob football’. The most famous of which is the Royal Shrovetide Football Match which occurs annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and has been played since at least the 12th century (over 900 years). Pancakes are traditionally served throughout the matches, which can last for days before a winner is announced.