On Shrove Tuesday in 1445, a woman in Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making traditional pancakes, she lost track of the time. Too late to change into fresh clothes, she took off to church with the frying pan still in her hand. The incident gave rise to the traditional Pancake Day races in the UK, the most famous of which is still the one in Olney. Most of the participants are women. They wear a scarf and apron in memory of the lady-with-the-frying-pan from long ago, and they are required to toss a pancake in their frying pan at both the starting and finishing lines. Men who take part have to drag up, wearing a scarf and apron.
The pancake race in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, is a mad affair with people often running in fancy dress. Part of the seafront is also closed to traffic for the annual skipping rope contest where the skipping ropes are traditionally the same used by fishermen to tow their boats. The Pancake Bell rings at noon to announce the start of the festivities.
Skipping contests and football games on streets are also popular, perhaps because in the past they were seen as frivolous pursuits that had to be give up for lent. In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the men organise a wild match where one team tries to kick the ball to the top end of town, while the other attempts to kick it towards the lower end. Called ‘mob football’, matches like these used to be very popular around the country until the Highways Act of 1835 banned people from playing footie on public roads. Many towns, though, are reviving the tradition.
Outdoor games are not the only traditions associated with Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of lent. ‘To be shriven’ means to get absolution for your sins. In the past Christians would go to confession on or around this day and do penance for their sins. Since the forty days of lent leading up to Easter were considered fasting days, people would eat up all the rich foods which didn’t keep on Shrove Tuesday. This included eggs and butter, both ingredients used in making pancakes. Cue, pancake tossing as another Shrove Tuesday tradition that survives to this very day.
In some countries, including France and the US, the day is also known as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, because people would use up all the suet in the house before the start of the fasting period. The food made to mark the day varies from country to country. On the island of Madeira, families make sugar cakes called masaladas, which look and taste very much like doughnuts. It is the children’s job to roll them in sugar, while the oldest woman in the house sees to the frying. In Estonia, they make special buns called vastlakukkel. They are filled with whipped cream and eaten after a large helping of pea soup, which was also a traditional dish eaten on Pancake Day in Cornwall. Similar buns are eaten in Denmark, usually on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday. Very few people fast through lent anymore but it’s great to see traditional celebrations surviving in communities around the world.
MIX A PANCAKE
by Christina Rossetti
Mix a pancake
Stir a pancake
Pop it in a pan.
Fry the pancake
Toss the pancake
Catch it if you can.