PANCAKE DAYCategory: Customs + Festivals
Pancake Day is the popular name for Shrove Tuesday, the day preceding the first day of Lent. In medieval times the day was characterized by merrymaking and feasting, a relic of w’hich is the eating of pancakes. Whatever religious significance Shrove Tuesday may have possessed in the olden days, it certainly has none now. A Morning Star correspondent who went to a cross-section of the people he knew to ask what they knew about Shrove Tuesday received these answers:
“It’s the day when I say to my wife: ‘Why don’t we make pancakes?’ and she says, ‘No, not this Tuesday! Anyway, we can make them any time.’”
“It is a religious festival the significance of which escapes me. What I do remember is that it is pancake day and we as children used to brag about how many pancakes we had eaten.”
“It’s pancake day and also the day of the student rags. Pancakes — luscious, beautiful pancakes. I never know the date — bears some relationship to some holy day.”
The origin of the festival is rather obscure, as is the origin of the custom of pancake eating.
Elfrica Viport, in her book on Christian Festivals, suggests that since the ingredients of the pancakes were all forbidden by the Church during Lent then they just had to be used up the day before.
Nancy Price in a book called Pagan’s Progress suggests that the pancake was a “thin flat cake eaten to stay the pangs of hunger before going to be shriven” (to confession).
In his Seasonal Feasts and Festivals E. O. James links up Shrove Tuesday with the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) festivals of warmer countries. These jollifications were an integral element of seasonal ritual for the purpose of promoting fertility and conquering /the malign forces of evil, especially at the approach of spring/’
The most consistent form of celebration in the old days was the all-over-town ball game or tug-of-war in which everyone let rip before the traditional feast, tearing here and tearing there, struggling to get the ball or rope into their part of the town. It seems that several dozen towns kept up these ball games until only a few years ago.
E. O. James in his book records instances where the Shrove Tuesday celebrations became pitched battles between citizens led by the mayor and the local church authorities.
Today the only custom that is consistently observed throughout Britain js pancake eating, though here and there other customs still seem to survive. Among the latter, Pancake Races, the Pancake Greaze custom and Ashbourne’s Shrovetide Football are the best known. Shrovetide is also the time of Student Rags.
Shrove Tuesday Pancake Races
Pancake races often formed part of old-time Shrove Tuesday revelry, and the old custom has survived to this day in a few places. The most famous race takes place at Olney,
Buckinghamshire, and is said to date from 1445. The Pancake Bell is rung to summon competitors, and starting time is five minutes before noon. Only women are eligible, and they must wear an apron and head-covering. The course is over a distance of 415 yards, during which the pancake must be tossed three times. The prize is a prayerbook from the vicar and a kiss from the bellringer!
Other Pancake Races are held at Bodiam, Sussex, and North Somercotes, Lincolnshire.
Shrove Tuesday Pancake Greaze
At Westminster School, London, Shrove Tuesday is the occasion of the Pancake Greaze custom. The cook, preceded by a verger carrying the silver-topped mace, takes his frying-pan to the Lower School and tosses a pancake over a high iron bar which separates the Lower School from the Upper School. There is a glorious scramble, and the boy who secures the whole, or largest part, of the pancake receives the traditional guinea. The cook is awarded ten shillings for his part in the proceedings.