Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent (which is what Christians did before Stoptober became a thing), or as it’s better known in Britain: Pancake Day. And as it’s an ancient tradition that stretches back at least a thousand years, the event has picked up a few little quirks and idiosyncrasies along the way, some of which are a little baffling at first glance.
First of all, as the date is intrinsically related to the literally moveable feast of Easter, there is no set Pancake Day. The proximity of this year’s Pancake Day to Valentine’s Day is just one of those things, although the idea of both occurring on the same day (which will happen in 2040) is enticing, to say the least.
If you’re hazy on the terminology, shrove comes from the English word shrive, meaning to present oneself for confession, and the idea is that this is the day for a final fatty blowout before the privations of Lent. It’s the same principle as Mardi Gras (literally “Fat Tuesday”) being the final hoorah before a spell of abstemiousness.
Strangely, pancakes were embedded in the practices of Shrove Tuesday before Christianity came along. A week of symbolic feasting across Europe heralded the end of the winter and the first beginnings of spring with flat pancakes (no rising agent involved, thanks), which symbolized the arrival of the sun. In some countries the very first pancake would be presented in the window as a gift to ancestors, and it wasn’t uncommon for pancakes and food to be burned ceremonially (rather than because of being a poor cook).
Here’s where the English eccentricities start to creep in. Shrove Tuesday was also given as an excuse for a huge game of football in lots of towns—a tradition carried on to this day in parts of rural Warwickshire, Cornwall, Northumberland, Darbyshire and County Durham—which was hugely popular and such a sprawling and messy affair it was curtailed, and almost extinguished, by the 1835 highway act that banned football on the public highway.
Then there are the pancake races. These are a leftover from the days when Shrove Tuesday was half a public holiday, featuring a church service to mark the beginning of Lent. The idea is that you run while tossing a pancake and the first person over the line with their dinner intact wins.
Legend states that this tradition began in Olney, Buckinghamshire, with a woman who forgot the time while making her pancakes and had to run to church, clutching a hot frying pan and flipping her pancake over and over furiously all the while. Waste not, want not.
And the good people of Olney have kept this up as a tradition ever since, with women (and men dressed as women) rushing across a 415-yard course, and then piling into the church.
Meanwhile, in coastal Scarborough, the schools are closed early and children are encouraged to skip along the foreshore, while children from Whitechapel in Lancashire go house to house, saying “please a pancake” and receiving sweets for their trouble. There is a LOT of this in British traditions.
And this goes all the way to the top. London hosts the Parliamentary Pancake Race, with competing teams from the House of Commons, the House of Lords and representatives of the media, with money being raised for charity.
And in households up and down the country, people are simply making pancakes, tossing pancakes and eating pancakes. Can you imagine?
British Good Friday Traditions: Pace-Egging, Toss Pot and St. George
Five British Easter Traditions That Will Surprise Americans
Five Birth Traditions of the British Isles (Some Of Which Are Disgusting)
Never Mind the Groundhogs: Happy Hedgehog Day!