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Shrove Tuesday is the day that falls before Ash Wednesday, during February or possibly very early in March. It is tied to the date of Easter, and Easter is a variable feast, falling on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. This means that the date of Shrove Tuesday also varies.
The word ‘shrove’ comes from shrive, meaning ‘to absolve’. Being the last day before the start of Lent, people would ask for absolution from their sins, and then do penance during the 40 days of Lent. The custom of giving up something for Lent, such as chocolate, alcohol or some other enjoyment is still practised by many people, even those who have no religious involvement.
Shrove Tuesday can be a popular day for the start of a diet. With the springtime not far away and nights getting lighter it seems a hopeful and positive opportunity to shed a few pounds before Easter.
Shrove Tuesday is also called ‘Pancake Day’. Pancakes are traditionally made on this day. Years ago much ritual fasting was practised in Lent. Because of this, the rich, fatty foods were eaten up on Shrove Tuesday. Pancakes, with the choice they offer of different fillings, are a versatile way to empty the pantry of all the goodies that would be banned during Lent.
Like so many Christian festivals, it is likely that Pancake Day has pagan origins. As winter fades the Sun God becomes stronger. Primitive people believed that the seasons were a struggle between light and dark. To help empower the gods of vegetation and springtime, they made pancakes, in the shape of the sun, eating them to increase his influence. Pancakes were also put out on windowsills as offerings to the spirits of the ancestors. Spring celebrations lasted an entire week, at the end of which pancakes were burnt in a bonfire as a further offering to the gods.
Mardi Gras, ‘meaning ‘Fat Tuesday’ is another name for Shrove Tuesday. Fatty foods are now eaten, before the self-denial of Lent. Mardi Gras can be a flamboyant occasion, with a carnival procession and other colourful events. The idea is to have a great time before quietening down and doing penance.
Many towns hold pancake races on Shrove Tuesday. The day was once known as a ‘half holiday’ in Britain. It started with the ringing of church bells at 11 am. The story goes that way back in 1445 a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she completely forgot the time. When she heard the bells summoning her to worship she dashed out of the house still carrying her frying pan, all the while tossing the pancake to keep it from burning.
This is how the tradition of tossing the pancake is said to have begun. Pancake races are still held in Olney. The pancake has to be tossed at the start and the finish of the race, and an apron and scarf have to be worn. If men want to take part they must dress as a housewife, also wearing an apron. Similar customs are held in other places in Britain.
There is something very satisfying about taking part in traditions. Linking with the cycle of the seasons is very grounding. It brings reassurance that things stay the same, but also the hope of change for the better. The sense of ‘connection’ gained can be helpful in combating depression, adding colour, rhythm and variety to life. On Shrove Tuesday you can;
In this article we have looked at the history and meanings of Shrove Tuesday, some pagan origins and the all-important link with pancakes. Make sure you mark this date in your diary and practice hand-eye coordination for tossing!
PUBLISHED: 9 February 2016