What are Origins and Customs are Associated with Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Day

If you have begun the new year with a resolution to eat healthily and come through January pretty much unscathed, then you may feel justified in feasting on some delicious pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Sometimes referred to as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (which literally means ‘fat Tuesday’) this day of celebration which occurs just before the start of the Christian season of Lent has become a regular custom, but when a where did it all start and what are the various customs we still observe today?

Why is it Called Shrove Tuesday?

In the UK, the name Shrove Tuesday comes from the word ‘shriven’. In the Middle Ages in England, before Lent started on Ash Wednesday, Christians would attend confession where they would be ‘shriven’ from their sins before the beginning of Lent.

When is Pancake Tuesday and why do we Eat Pancakes?

Lent was a time when Christians fasted to remember the time Jesus Christ spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting in the desert. Lent usually runs for 46 or 47 days with the start of it varying each year depending on when Easter Sunday falls. Therefore, Pancake Tuesday and Ash Wednesday can fall on different dates between the start of February and early March each year.

The custom of eating pancakes came from the fact that people had to use up fats like milk and butter and other foods like eggs before they started their fasting the next day. Therefore, when these ingredients were mixed together with some ground up grain (flour), the result was pancakes.

In other countries such as Poland and Sweden, sweet cakes and buns are made while in Estonia, people traditionally eat a type of pea soup. The Spanish eat omelettes while in Portugal they feast on doughnuts.

What is Mardi Gras and Where is it Celebrated?

Mardi Gras, which means fat Tuesday, is carnival which is most notably celebrated in New Orleans in Louisiana in the US. Louisiana has a strong French influence due to its colonial past and Mardi Gras is a time for parades and feasting before the beginning of Lent.  Pre-Lenten carnivals are celebrated in some European and South American countries as well and the word carnival itself comes from the old Latin phrase carnem levare, which means to take away meat, a nod to fasting which was to follow.

What are Some Other Pancake Day Traditions?

Shrove Tuesday isn’t just about gorging on pancakes, it also a day when people around the world engage in all kinds of weird and wonderful customs.

In many villages in England, there are Pancake Races where people race each other while holding frying pans full of pancakes while in one village in Derby, there is an annual Shrovetide football match which is played through the town, along a three-mile course and features teams of dozens of players on each side.

In Denmark, an ancient tradition of hitting the cat out the barrel has been modified for modern day. The tradition started when people would hit a wooden barrel with sticks to drive out the cat, which symbolised evil spirits. Nowadays, children dress up and hit a cardboard box which contains sweets instead of a cat.