Today, Tuesday February 25th, is the last day of Shrovetide in the Christian church, and is known by many names in various traditions, such as:
- Fat Tuesday, as one consumed all the fats in the larder (meat, butter, cream, cheese, eggs, etc.) before the beginning of Lent the next day
- Mardi Gras, in French, also meaning Fat Tuesday
- Pancake Tuesday, as pancakes were the traditional celebratory food before the Lenten fasting
- Carnival, from the Latin for “farewell to the flesh” (Lent was typically meat-free)
- Fasting Eve or Inid (meaning “the beginning” in Gaelic, i.e. the beginning of Lent)
- Fastnachtsdienstag, in German, which is celebrated by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the US as Fastnacht Day
As a child, I always looked forward to Pancake Tuesday. Our mother prepared the batter early in the morning — a simple blend of flour, eggs, milk, butter, a bit of sugar and perhaps a hint of vanilla. After dinner, she made the pancakes, a tasty treat of thin French-style crepes (rather than what some know as a flapjack), topped with sprinkled sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice, and rolled up for serving.
I knew there was a religious association to Pancake Tuesday, because we always celebrated it on the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I remember asking my parents why pancakes were a tradition on this day, and was told it was to use up all the dairy and eggs before Lent, a 40-day period of preparation for Easter for religious observers, through daily prayer, confession, repentance of sins, penance … and abstaining of all kinds (meat, dairy, eggs). Shroving, as in Shrovetide, referred to the act of penance associated with Confession. We would be urged to “give up something for Lent”, i.e. make a Lenten sacrifice, typically something one enjoyed (chocolate, etc) or something considered a luxury.
It was said that the pancake ingredients had a spiritual significance, symbolizing the importance and significance of Lent:
Flour: The staff of life
With my own memories in mind, I began to wonder how my English and/or Irish ancestors might have celebrated this holy day and how others in Western Europe also celebrated. The more I read, the more I became fascinted by how the holiday has changed over the years, reflecting the complex social and religious customs of more ancient days and how for many this is now one of the lesser-known holidays, and far more secular than religious for many.
But Pancake Tuesday is definitely rooted in the Christian traditions of Lent, Shrovetide and Easter. For those not familiar with these events, Lent was the 40-day holiday leading up to Easter, which is perhaps the holiest time in Christian faiths, marking the death and resurrection of Christ. Moreover, Easter is a variable holy day, originally aligned with Jewish Passover. Easter Sunday is celebrated on the first Sunday after the Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, roughly 6 weeks before Easter Sunday. Shrovetide was the preparation for Lent, running for three days from Shrove Sunday to “Fasting Tuesday”.
Whenever Lent began, typically early February to early March, it was firmly embedded in the “cold season” in Northern Europe, those late winter months when our ancestors were likely spending much of their time indoors, mostly in the dark (except for a few candles indoors), and eating foods that had been preserved from the fall harvest and meats prepared (smoke or salted) in the late autumn/early winter slaughter of the animals. It was likely that the larders had low stocks and the expected replenishment (and sunshine!) that Spring could bring was likely still a few weeks away.
The practices of Lent included a ban on meat, dairy and eggs — and merriment in general. Christmas and Candlemas festivities had passed, and Spring celebrations were still a few weeks away. Everyone from King to villager likely needed to release that pent-up energy, which is perhaps why Shrovetide became such a celebratory event — with feasting, games and a little bit of mischief too — before the austere 40-day Lenten period!
A 16th century preacher described Shrovetide as “a time of great gluttony, surfeiting and drunkenness” and poet William Warner first spoke of the “Fast-eve pan-puffs”. The pan-puffs, likely pancakes, took various forms throughout Europe: bannock in Scotland, fritters and flapjacks in other parts of Britain. (source, Hutton, see footnotes), and the doughnuts and fritters associated with Fastnacht.
Records from English nobility and church hierarchy in the 14th century show that Shrovetide expenditure — which at that time included plays, music and masquerades — ranked second only to Christmas festivities. Celebrations were not confined by rank, and were likely enjoyed by all across Britain and Ireland, with ball games, cockfighting matches, and an element of mischief amongst the youth (rioting was not unknown, especially with young apprentices). In later centuries, working folks were given a “half-day” holiday starting at 11 AM when the church bells rang, declaring the holiday, and which became known as the Pancake Bell.
There is even some evidence up the 19th century that “shroving” was practised, similar to the trick-or-treating we now associate with Halloween. Youth, and others, would go door to door begging for food for the Shrovetide feast, often singing a tune, such as these two ditties from Milton Abbas in Dorset and Polperro in Cornwall (source: Ronald Hutton’s “Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain”, see footnote):
|Please live come a shroving||For a piece of pancake,||or a little truckle cheese||of your own making/||If you don’t give me some,||If you don’t give me none,||I’ll knock down your door||with a great marrow bone||and away I’ll run.||Nicka, nacka, nan||Give me some pancake and I’ll be gone;||But if you give me none,||I’ll throw a great stone||and down your door shall come.|
If the shroving request was denied, the refuser could expect some mischief in retaliation, such as the throwing of eggs or food scraps, having their faces blackened with soot, or some broken crockery thrown their way (hence the alternate name for the shrovers, “crockers”!).
And a word on the lemon juice. Lemons were not traditional in the preparation of pancakes and other foodstuffs in England until the Middle Ages and beyond, when they were imported and planted as ornamental and medicinal plants. Oranges were also a popular treat, sold on the streets of London as early as the 17th Century by “Orange girls” aka “Orange Wenches”( Nell Gwyn, the famous actress and mistress of Charles II, likely began her career as an Orange Wench!).
Of course, we now know that citrus fruits were a rich source of Vitamin C, so truly were medicinal. The Royal Navy in the early 19th century brought lemons and limes on ships to prevent scurvy, hence the “limey” nickname for Brits!). Lemons and oranges became a very popular treat.
Most of these rather exuberant Shrovetide traditions disappeared over time, and were rarely seen beyond the late 19th century. The Pancake Bell remained in many communities, although the half-day holiday slowly disappeared. Newer traditions sprung up, such as pancake races (often in costume, aka “fancy dress”) and pancake tosses.
In most countries, all that’s left of these ancient traditions is the pancake itself!
So tonight, I will indulge in a pancake, made the traditional way I learned from my mother… although possibly I might try making a keto/low-carb version made with almond flour, cream, eggs and a sugar substitute.
But always with lemon!
You’ll find oh so many on the internet, or on Pinterest, but my old favourite is this one:
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking powder (I often omit this)
- 2 tablespoons sugar (granulated or icing)
- 2 large eggs
- 2/3 cup milk + 1/3 cup water
- 1/2 tsp vanilla or grated lemon rind
- Make a well in the sifted ingredients and pour in the liquid
- Combine quickly with a few strokes of a fork or whisk. Ignore lumps, they’ll disappear.
- Let batter rest for 3-6 hours in fridge before cooking.
Cook in skillet (non stick is good!):
- add a few drops of oil to the skillet, on medium heat
- add in sufficient batter to thinly coat the bottom of the skillet
- let brown lightly, then flip (BTW, the first one is often a dud!)
- oil and repeat
You can keep your individual crepes warm on a tray in the oven. I like to sprinkle them first with lemon juice and sugar, then roll up (as in image at top of page), and keep warm in the oven at low heat.
Post Sources / Research: