Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)
Pancake Day is eagerly anticipated and hungrily celebrated on Shrove Tuesday every year. It gives everyone the chance for one final blow-out before Lent begins. Here’s when it’s happening in 2019, and why a Christian observance has become so strongly associated with pancakes.
In 2019, Pancake Day falls on 5 March, with pancake enthusiasts having to wait almost three weeks later than last year for their annual feast. The date changes because Shrove Tuesday, the Christian observance on which Pancake Day falls, is always 47 days before Easter Sunday. This year Easter is on 21 April, with its position calculated based on the first full moon that follows the spring equinox in March.
The season in the Christian calendar is supposed to replicate the Biblical story of Jesus Christ’s withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. This is why Lent is traditionally a period of abstinence, with many non-Christians still getting into the spirit of the season by giving up a particular treat. With the bleak prospect of 40 days of discipline looming, it was perhaps inevitable that Shrove Tuesday would become an occasion to gorge oneself and cram in as much frivolity as possible.
In French, the date became known as “Mardi Gras”, or “Fat Tuesday”, for this reason, and the label has been adopted in other nations too, most notably the USA. Other traditions have developed around Shrove Tuesday beyond excessive eating, such as the unruly, village-wide football games in the UK which date as far back the 17th century.
Although 19th-century law changes made them less commonplace, matches such as Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football still deliver mud, violence and general mayhem every year. Although the practice has largely subsided, the Ashbourne Shrove Tuesday football is still wildly popular.
Why do we mark Shrove Tuesday with pancakes? Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday for a simple reason: their ingredients. Lent, particularly when it was adhered to more widely and strictly, marked a time to eat simpler food, and give up things like sweet, rich and dairy ingredients. The day before the season started was therefore the ideal time to make pancakes as a means to use up leftover eggs, milk and sugar.
Pancake races supposedly originated back in 1445, when a woman in Buckinghamshire is said to have been caught out by the sound of church bells before she’d finished making a pancake. Her solution, the story goes, was to sprint from her home to her local church service still carrying her frying pan, flipping the pancake within to prevent it burning. Olney, the town where the tale is based, still holds a world-famous annual race, with female contestants battling it out over a 415-yard course, traditionally wearing an apron in honour of pancake racing’s founder.
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