The key to today’s festivities is in the name: shrove. It comes from an old word, ‘shrive’ , which means to confess and receive absolution. This seems strange now, since most of the biggest parties in Shrove Tuesday – Mardi Gras, Carnival – are good opportunities to do things which you may be sorry for later. Somehow, a day of penitence has become a day for partying. How did this happen? And what does it have to do with pancakes? Read on!
The key to this twist is that Shrove Tuesday is celebrated the day before Lent begins. Lent is the 40 days plus Sundays which precede Good Friday. During this period, Christians are asked to recall Christ’s temptations in the wilderness, as he fasted while Satan tempted him with offers of food and power. Traditionally, believers have given something up for Lent, so they can follow in Christ’s footsteps and get closer to Christ. In the Middle Ages, this meant fasting.
For many centuries, believers were asked to eat just once a day on the Fridays of Lent, giving up meat, eggs and animal fats on those days. Today, many people use Lent as an opportunity to go on a diet. By giving up something we don’t really need, we are reminded of what really matters in life. Ideally, we are drawn closer to Christ, who reminded Satan that none of us lives an authentic life by eating just bread alone. The true sustenance comes from our relationship to God.
So what does any of this have to do with Mardi Gras and pancakes? Well, in preparation for this period of fasting, the church originally called for a three-day period of confession, which started on the Sunday before the Tuesday. The problem was that people spent those three days partying, knowing that the next forty days were going to be tougher. They gathered up all the foods they wouldn’t be able to eat, and binged. The fat, milk and eggs were combined in England to make pancakes, which is why many now call it Pancake Tuesday. The Church decided to limit the amount of partying by reducing the days of penitence to just one day, the Tuesday before Lent began.
By 1630, we have records of how the partying and pancake making got under way each year:
In England, it was common in boarding schools for the cook to enter the great hall and throw a pancake into the air, which students would scramble to catch and eat. The rest of the day was a write-off for any studying. Meanwhile, in town, adults would indulge in eating too much, drinking too much, and mistreat roosters, who were tied to stakes and then thrashed. This strange practice appears to have been a symbolic way of punishing France, which had the same name as the rooster in old English.
In France, this day became known as Mardi Gras – literally, Fat Tuesday. People feasted on the soon to be forbidden foods, and partied big time. This practice spread to the new world with French explorers and settlers in the American South, giving rise to the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.
In the 19th century there are records of a Mardi Gras parade where the floats took their themes from scenes derived from John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, showing the religious roots of the holiday. ( Incidentally, Milton’s less known sequel, Paradise Regained, is excellent Lenten reading as it features an extended dialogue between Christ and Satan in the desert.) Even today, the raucous celebrations in New Orleans come to an abrupt stop at midnight, since it would be wrong to drink, party and debauch on the first day of Lent.
In the English-speaking world, Shrove Tuesday became associated with a pancake supper, like the one we celebrate. In England, there is a tradition of pancake races. Men , and sometimes only women, race down a field flipping pancakes in pans. The winner is the fastest person to run and flip without dropping the pancake. In Olney, Buckinghamshire, the race is still held, dating back to 1445. The story is that a woman raced to church on Shrove Tuesday, fearful she would be late, still holding her frying pan. Today only women who have lived in town for six months are allowed to participate. The winner gets a kiss and a book of common prayer from the vicar.
So, as people party, race, drink and eat too much today, try to remember that real joy lies in being thankful for what we have, and realizing that we don’t need much to find the way of happiness.
Happy Shrove Tuesday.