Tuesday 24th February is Pancake Day, which marks the beginning of Lent. You’ve got the ingredients, you’ve bought the lemons and stocked up on sugar, but what else does this traditional Christian day have to offer, how is it celebrated around the world and who exactly started the bizarre trend of pancake racing?!
Officially called Shrove Tuesday in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada, it is the last day of ‘Shrovetide’. The word ‘Shrove’ comes from the English verb ‘Shrive’ which means obtaining absolutions from ones sins by confession. Christians were expected to do this on the day before the 40 days fast of Lent began.
Around Europe Shrove Tuesday is known as Pancake Day, Mardi Gras, Bursting Day, Fat Tuesday and Fasnacht Day. In countries of the Carnival tradition, the ‘Tuesday of Carnival’ is known as Martes de Carnaval, Terça-feira de Carnaval, Faschingsdienstag, Terça-feira Gorda, Martedì Grasso, and Vastlapäev.
In France and French-speaking Catholic parts of the USA, Shrove Tuesday is called Mardi Gras. In the great tradition of using up all rich foodstuffs before Lent, Mardi Gras food dishes include sweet fried dumplings, cenci - usually served in the shape of a loose knot - and a King Cake given to the appointed community King!
In Hawaii the day is also known as Malasada Day, which comes from the days when Portuguese immigrants made batches of malasada - Portuguese Doughnuts - to use up their butter and sugar from the plantations.
While in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada it is traditional to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (hence the Pancake Day nickname), the French have an entirely separate festival associated with pancakes called Chandeleur. It is held on 2nd February each year and marks Jesus’ presentation in the temple.
Similar to Chandeleur, Candlemas is celebrated by Anglican communities. It is sometimes thought that pancakes are associated with this celebration because of the solar symbolism of their shape and colour.
In Canada household objects - including rings, thimbles, thread, and coins - are baked into the pancakes and served to family members. All the objects have meanings, for example finding a coin will bring financial reward and the person who finds the ring will be married within a year.
According to tales in Estonia and Finland if you cut your hair on Shrove Tuesday it will grow fast and thick for the next year.
Pancake races are held across the British Isles. They usually involve female contestants who must toss pancakes in a frying pan a certain number of times while running to a finishing line. The first one to reach the line without dropping their pancake wins.
The most famous pancake race is held in Olney in Buckinghamshire and has been an annual tradition since 1445. It is said to have originated when a housewife from Olney was so busy making pancakes, she found herself late for church and when she heard the bells marking the start of the service, she ran to the church still carrying her frying pan and pancake.
In the UK, teams from the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Fourth Estate battle it out for the title of Parliamentary Pancake Race Champions in aid of national brain injury charity Rehab UK.