Much Ado About Nothing


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne."

1634 William Fennor, Palinodia.

So, the real question is what do pancakes have to do with Shrove Tuesday?

Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution for them. Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence, because it's the last day before Lent. Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up, to prepare for the celebration of Easter. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent. In the old days there were many foods that observant Christians would not eat during Lent: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn't last the forty days of Lent without spoiling. The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras; meaning fat Tuesday. Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour.

Of course, the Church doesn't demand or require that people fast during Lent, rather, it encourages the biblical discipline of fasting. The purpose of this post is informational, not a theological defense of fasting.

In England there are several celebrations on this day but perhaps the best known one is the Pancake Day Race at Olney in Buckinghamshire which has been held since 1445. The race came about when a woman cooking pancakes heard the shriving bell summoning her to confession. She ran to church wearing her apron and still holding her frying pan, and thus without knowing it, started a tradition that has lasted for over five hundred years.

According to the current rules, only women wearing a dress, no slacks or jeans, an apron and a hat or scarf, may take part in the race. Each contestant has a frying pan containing a hot, cooking pancake. She must toss it three times during the race that starts at the market square at 11:55 am. The first woman to complete the winding 375 meter course and arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bellringer and receive a "Kiss of Peace" from the verger there, is the winner. She also receives a prayer book from the vicar.

On the same day at 11 am at Westminster School in London, a verger from the Abbey leads a procession of eager boys into the playground of the school for the Annual Pancake Grease. The school cook, who must be something of an athlete to manage it, tosses a huge pancake, reinforced with horsehair, over a five meter high bar and the boys frantically scramble for a piece. The scholar who emerges from the scrum with the largest piece receives a cash bonus from the Dean. The cook also gets a reward. Were the cook to fail to get the 'pancake' over the bar within 3 tries, he or she would have been booked, or pelted with (rather heavy) Latin primers; it is rumored that this took place on (at least) one occasion.

In the Canadian province of Newfoundland, household objects are baked into the pancakes and served to family members. Rings, thimbles, thread, coins, and other objects all have meanings associated with them. The lucky one to find coins in their pancake will be rich, the finder of the ring will be the first married, and the finder of the thimble will be a seamstress or tailor. Children have great fun with the tradition, and often eat more than their fill of pancakes in search of a desired object.

No surprise, pancakes are on the menu tonight. Got maple syrup?

Information was taken from: