In the UK, there is one day of the year when it’s perfectly acceptable to throw food around the kitchen – Pancake Day! People up and down the country stock up on chocolate spread, bananas, lemons and sugar for this national pancake-munching day of celebration. Every year, the nation’s collective palates water at the thought of this most marvellous treat. Do you go savoury or sweet? How long should you fry them for? When should you toss it? Will you be scraping burnt batter off the bottom of a pan – or worse, the ceiling?
When is Pancake Day?
Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, always falls 47 days before Easter so the date moves but it will always be between February 3 and March 9. In 2017, Pancake Day falls on 28th February.
The name Shrove Tuesday comes from ‘shrive’, meaning absolution for sins by doing penance. The day gets its name from the tradition of Christians trying to be ‘shriven’ before Lent. Lent is a time for reflection and for fasting. Christians would go to Confession, where they admit their sins to a priest and ask for absolution. A bell would be rung to call them to Confession, which was called the ‘pancake bell’. It’s still rung today.
Pancakes are now forever associated with Shrove Tuesday as it is a sort of all-in-one way of using up some fatty foods before Lent. In the past the idea was for families to clear out their cupboards and remove the fattening foods (normally the tempting ones) so they aren’t in their house during Lent. Eggs, milk and sugar aren’t traditionally eaten in fasting season, so need to be eaten beforehand. The actual tradition of mixing them up for pancakes is thought to come from a pagan ritual, but others say it is a Christian tradition – with each ingredient representing one of the four pillars of the faith. Eggs for creation, flour for sustenance or the staff of life, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. The pancake features in cook books as far back as 1439 and the idea of tossing them is almost as old. “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.” (Pasquil’s Palin, 1619).
Across the UK, people take part in pancake races on Shrove Tuesday. It involves a large amout of people normally in fancy dress, racing down streets tossing pancakes. The idea is to get to the finish line first, while carrying the frying pan and flipping the pancake 3 times without dropping it. The most famous race is in Buckinghamshire in Olney. People say that Olney has been celebrating pancake races since 1445! Only women take part and they have to wear aprons, a hat or scarf. Each contestant has to toss the pancake three times during the race. The first woman to get to the church, complete the course, serve the pancake to the bellringer and kiss him is the winner.
Mardi Gras and Carnival around the world
In the US, Pancake Day is called Mardi Gras which is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’ mainly because people use up the fatty foods before Lent. The world famous Rio Carnival, which attracts millions of revellers to dance and cavort on the streets, is one of many across the globe leading into the Lenten season. The word “carnival” may have origins in the Italian phrase “carne levare” meaning “to remove meat”.
Other huge parades and celebrations take place throughout the rest of Brazil and most of South America, along with France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and many US cities. They all end on Mardis Gras or Shrove Tuesday.