Pancake Day: its origin, meaning and purpose

Today is the day where the majority of us have fun in our kitchens, preparing, flipping and serving delicious pancakes. We all enjoy this day, an excuse to eat dessert for dinner and indulge in the sweet toppings of syrup, fruit, lemon or sugar. But many of us forget or don’t know why we celebrate Pancake Day. The mainstream popularity and celebration of the day has dwarfed the true religious importance of ‘Pancake Day’ and the true meaning of why, every year on the Tuesday the day falls on, we all consume the sweet treat.

Over the years the day has become commonly known as ‘Pancake Day’. However, to Christians the day is better known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’. Shrove Tuesday is a Christian tradition that dates back to centuries ago.

Shrove Tuesday was the traditional feast before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Lent is the 40 days before Easter which marks the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert before he was led to his crucifixion and resurrection at Easter. Christians mark this period as a time to pray and fast, abstaining from a whole range of foods including meat, eggs, fish, fats and milk.

Shrove Tuesday is part of the Christian calendar which commemorates the eve of Lent. On this day, Anglo-Saxon Christians went to confession and were “shriven” (absolved from their sins). The word ‘shrove’ comes from the old Roman Catholic practice of being ‘shriven’. A bell would be rung to call people to confession and this came to be called the “Pancake Bell” which is still rung today. 

Shrove Tuesday was the last opportunity to use up eggs and fats, and making pancakes was the perfect way of using up these ingredients – a custom which continued long after the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.

Christians would also get rid of all edible temptations before the Lenten fast and this took place over a period of days before Lent known as ‘Shrovetide’. Meat such as bacon would be eaten up on ‘Collop Monday’ (a collop is a thin slice of meat) and on Shrove Tuesday eggs, butter and stocks of fat would be used up. 

As well as giving up these foods, Christians were also expected to relinquish fun pastimes such as dancing and playing games like football, so Shrovetide was also a time for fun. For example, children would go ‘Shroving’ or ‘Lent-crocking’ on Shrove Tuesday, knocking on their neighbours’ doors and singing:

We be come a-shroving,

For a piece of pancake,

Or a bite of bacon,

Or a little truckle of cheese

Of your own making

Or on Collop Monday:

Once, twice, thrice

I give thee warning

Please to make some pancakes

‘Gin tomorrow morning

Another festivity was the pancake race. Dating from around 1445, an old legend in Buckinghamshire has it that a local woman heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan.

The pancake itself has a very long history and featured in cookery books as far back as 1439. The tradition of tossing or flipping them is almost as old: “And every man and maidedoe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for fearethey burne.” (Pasquil’s Palin, 1619).

Shrove Tuesday always falls 47 days before Easter Sunday and so the date varies from year to year, with it this year falling on Tuesday 16th February. It is known as Mardi Gras (literally “fat Tuesday in French), and Fasnacht (the Germanic “night of the fast”).

So when you are making and eating your delicious pancakes over the course of today, take a moment to reflect on the true Christian meaning, purpose and tradition of the day. It is a time to indulge before a 40 day fast, to mirror what Christ did for humanity around 2,000 years ago. It is a day to prepare and celebrate before the Lenten period of prayer, reflection and abstinence. 

Will you be giving up anything for Lent this year? Has this read made you think more and perhaps act on the Christian traditions of Shrove Tuesday?

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