History of Pancake Day | Shrove Tuesday | Meaning of Lent

It’s P for Pancake Day

Posted on February 21, 2017 by Eleanor McKenzie

Tuesday, February 28th 2017 is Pancake Day, or more correctly Shrove Tuesday. The actual day of this festival moves annually as it depends on when Easter is, but as many of you will know it is always the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, which is also the first day of Lent. The word ‘shrove’ comes from ‘shrive’, which means “to absolve’ and in times past a person would have been “shriven of their sins.”

Preparing for Lent

Lent is a time for fasting and reflection and is observed by Christians of numerous denominations including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans, hence the practice of feasting on the day before the 40-day period of Lent starts and pancakes are the chosen indulgence. In some cultures, Shrove Tuesday is referred to as Mardi Gras, which is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’ and this similarly refers to the practice of eating richer, fatty foods on the night before Ash Wednesday, and in Brazil, New Orleans and Tenerife for example, it is the day of a massive carnival. But, in the UK we’re happy to stick with pancakes.

I recall it as a very special day during my childhood. My grandmother kept a pan hanging on the kitchen wall that was only used on Pancake Day. She and my mother were dab hands at pancakes and I used to dream about coming home from school to sit at the table with a bowl of fresh lemon wedges and one of caster sugar at the ready to complete the utter deliciousness of a freshly made pancake. My appetite for them was seemingly endless and the knowledge that I would have to wait another year before having them again was an incentive to gorge myself on as many as possible. My grandmother used to tell me tales of her childhood pancake days in the Lancashire countryside and the competitions her and her friends had to see who could eat the most, and often these competitions ended with at least one being rather unwell. Thankfully, my stomach was made of sterner stuff.

Shrove Tuesday in the UK

There is an interesting history behind celebrating this day with pancakes. First, it was the last opportunity for households to use up eggs and fats before the Lenten fast began. The recipe for the English style of thin pancake, as opposed to the thicker version that in my country were also called pancakes, has been found in cookery books dating back to 1439 and the tradition of tossing them in the pan also goes back some way. According to Historic-UK.com it is mentioned in Pasquili’s Palin of 1619: “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.” Google is unable to throw any more light on the origins of this quotation, unfortunately.

Another thing that I wasn’t aware of is the fact that the ingredients themselves had a special significance relative to the Christian observance of Lent and Easter:

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

Origins of the pancake race

And then there is the tradition of the pancake race, which historically was a major part of the day’s festivities. Large numbers of people, often in fancy dress, used 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 tossing the pancake as you run.

England’s most famous pancake race takes place at Olney in Buckinghamshire. Historic-UK.com says: “According to tradition, in 1445 a woman of Olney heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to the church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan. The Olney pancake race is now world famous but competitors have to be local housewives and they must wear an apron and a hat or scarf.” I’m pretty sure that I can’t even toss a pancake while standing still, never mind do it while running.

My pancakes will never be quite as good as my grandmothers, but I still love them and will be preparing my batter, sugar and lemons on the last day of February. Will you be making some as well?

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.