What Is Pancake Day All About?


This evening I cooked enough pancakes to sink a battleship. Everyone in our family loves the things, and we had several of our offspring round to join us (and save themselves the hassle of making and cooking them!) Naturally, being just ‘Mum’, I’ve got hours of spare time to cater for everyone! I wish!

Well, now I’ve just decided to write about where and when this tradition of stuffing ourselves stupid with pancakes started. So here’s the gist of it:

Shrove Tuesday – or Pancake Day – is exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday. It is called a moveable feast because it’s determined by the cycles of the moon. The date can be anywhere between February 3rd and March 9th and falls immediately before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

The word ‘shrove’ is derived from the English word, shrive – which means gaining absolution (forgiveness) for any sins. Christians attended Confession for this, followed by a penance (a type of forfeit or punishment). So on Shrove Tuesday, Christians were ‘shriven’ before the 40 days of fasting during Lent – the days leading up to Easter, the most important Christian festival.

The tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday has led to the day generally being referred to as ‘Pancake Day’ in the U.K., Ireland, Australia and Canada. This name is derived from the tradition of eating up all the rich foods (or ‘fats’) in the house before Lent. It would also provide a day of merriment and feasting before the days of austerity ahead. Outside of those countries, Catholic and Protestant countries traditionally call the day ‘Fat Tuesday’ – or ‘Mardi Gras.’

Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. Krewe of Kosmic Revelers on Frenchmam St. 2009. Author: Infrogmation of New Orleans
Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. Krewe of Kosmic Revelers on Frenchmam St. 2009. Author: Infrogmation of New Orleans
Margi Gras in Marseille. Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Say-Mars Say-Yeah

In England, many towns once held traditional Shrove Tuesday ‘mob’ football games as part of the community celebrations, some dating back to the 12th Century. Today, only a few towns continue this tradition, which mostly died out in the 19th Century after the 1835 Highways Act was passed, banning football on public highways.

The tradition of ‘pancake races’ is said to have originated in 1445, when a housewife was so busy making pancakes she forgot the time for the usual 11 o’ clock church service. Only the ringing of the church bells reminded her and she raced to the church, still carrying her frying pan – containing a pancake.

Pancake Races at Olney in Buckinghamshire. Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Lestalorm

Pancake races are still quite common in the UK, especially in England. Contestants race through the streets with their frying pans, tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running. The most famous pancake race is at Olney in Buckinghamshire, and dates back to 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, race over a 415 yard course with their frying pans. Rules stipulate that they must must toss their pancakes at both the start and the finish, and wear an apron and scarf. Traditionally, when men want to take part, they must dress up as a housewife (usually an apron and a bandanna). The race is followed by a church service.

Preparing for Pancake Day in Olney. Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Michael Trelove

Pancakes are simple to make and cook (unless you have a family the size of mine and they all want half a dozen each! Not small ones, either!) The recipe is a basic batter, which can be found on many websites and in recipe book, so I won’t elaborate here. In Britain, lemon juice and sugar is a favourite topping, but there are lots of different sweet fillings that people choose – golden syrup, maple syrup and various jams, to name just a few.  Naturally, I’m expected to provide every possible choice. My husband prefers orange juice  to lemon, for a start.

Pancake with orange juice and sugar
Pancakes with raspberry filling
Pancakes with raspberry filling


52 thoughts on “What Is Pancake Day All About?

    1. Lent nowadays is nothing like it was years ago. Those who still like to do something about it (very few in the UK nowadays) tend to give up one thing – like chocolates, or alcohol, or even perhaps smoking. Lasting the 40 days is another matter. I’m sure there are still some Christians who take it much more seriously. You’re right, though. Lent doesn’t sound like much fun! Thanks for commenting, Jacob. 🙂

  1. Those pancakes look so delicious! I have never heard of putting orange juice or lemon juice on pancakes then sprinkle with sugar on pancakes before. I will have to try that sometime. I have always used Maple Syrup. Pancake Day sounds like a lot of fun with races celebrations.

    1. Yes, the old traditions are great fun PJ but, like so many things in modern times, the novelty value of them is dying out. The races still go on in some places. In fact, I was reading recently that Olney in Buckinghamshire has had an ongoing pancake race contest with somewhere in Kansas for several years now. The timing is done in the two different places, of course. It seems that Kansas is way in the lead regarding ‘wins’. I think it’s lovely to keep the tradition going in that way. Unfortunately many people don’t even bother to make pancakes nowadays. We do, simply because Nick and I are of the older generation and tend to hang on to all these interesting things. I like any type of syrup on mine, too, 🙂

      1. When you refer to Kansas are speaking about the state of Kansas in North America? I think keeping old traditions in some things is wonderful because it is part of your heritage. I love pancakes. Most people today are eating healthier and may be why they don’t make them anymore.

      2. Hi PJ. I’m late getting onto WP tonight, so sorry for the late reply. Yes, it’s a place called Liberal in Kansas, USA. Apparently it’s all to do with an ‘International Pancake Day’, held since 1950. Up to 2009, Liberal had 34 wins to Olney’s 25. I’ll have to find out what’s been happening since. I agree that pancakes aren’t the healthiest of foods – probably why many people don’t bother with them now. We only have them on Shrove Tuesday. The races are great to see, though. 🙂

      3. Thanks, PJ. it’s odd to heaf from you at this moment. I’m just reading your story on your new challenge. I’ve just seem maddmombetty’s.

  2. Oh my goodness, what a wonderful holiday! Thank you for sharing the history/ images, Millie. I could just picture you standing over a hot stove flipping cakes all evening!

    My boys would LOVE this day. We eat “breakfast for dinner” sometimes and make pancakes (U.S. style, yours look more like French crepes than what we Yankees call pancakes) and top them with all variety of goodies. In fact, we make pancakes for breakfast probably twice a week. I don’t eat them usually–too many carbs! 🙂 But the boys adore them, so I can’t deny them the delight of pancakes. We make crepes too, but those are so much more time consuming! We had them yesterday because it was my oldest son’s birthday, and he insisted upon crepes, and we were nearly late for school.

    1. Yes, I think ours are more like crepes – quite thin. We don’t have them that often, though. They are very high in carbs, as you say, and all my six are well grown up. The grandchildren would eat them every day, given half the chance. I don’t know how you find time to cook them before school! Well done, you. Some people in the UK also have savoury fillings, but the traditional ‘Pancake Day’ ones are lemon and sugar. Good to hear from you, Mara. You’ve not been doing the Monday challenge. I missed it this week, too. Hope the writing is going well. 🙂

      1. I can’t get Monday Challenge in every week, or sometimes I just feel like doing one of the others, like the Flash! Friday (I got a “Special Mention” on The Argument entry which made me feel giddy). I’ve been trying to finish up editing my next novel by reading it out loud to my son. It is amazing what you catch when you read it out loud!

      2. I do intend to read the first of your books soon. I’ve got a couple I’m reading at the moment, then I’ll have a look. I’m easing off on the challenges too, now. I dived straight in and have been doing three writing challenges a week. Not a lot else gets done, does it? I haven’t heard of The Argument, though. Hope your son’s a good editor. 🙂

  3. One of my former workplaces used to overlook a ‘Pancake Manor’ restaurant, so on Shrove Tuesday we used to watch the Pancake races through the window of our office. I wasn’t aware of the housewife being late for church starting the tradition. (they don’t seem to wear the apron and scarf thing here), but what fun it is. I tend to cook more waffles and pikelets… Do you know what they are? ( I am sorry, I don’t know if they are English or Australian!) A kind of mini pancakes, so if I want to make pancakes, I just use my pikelet recipe and make them larger!

    1. Yes, we have waffles here – both sweet ones and potato waffles to go with savoury dishes/meals. Pikelets tends to be the Yorkshire name for crumpets, which we eat buttered and spread with whatever takes your fancy – anything from jam to Marmite (like your Veggemite). The texture is sort of holey, so it doesn’t sound like a pancake batter. I imagine they must be quite different things. Interesting – I’ll have to try to find out. 🙂

      1. I am not sure if this will work, but this link should take you to a picture of my pikelets, which I posted some years back, it took me a while to find the photo… anyway, if it doesn’t work, the pikelets have a texture of the pancake, just smaller, and the crumpet…yes we toast those here and add butter jam etc… and they are definitely holey!!!! I once made them, but only once….easier to buy them. The men of the house love them…

  4. Wow! This is amazing! A fun and interesting post. Your pancakes in the picture look delicious. I love eating it and enjoy making a lot of pancakes for these two boys. It is wonderful to read the history of pancakes – from 1445 – that’s quite a story for a very simple ‘cake’.

    1. It is fun, especially in those towns that actually still hold the races. Junior schools often have ‘pretend’ pancake races, too. And yes, I find the history of the day fascinating – but then, I love all the old traditions (including those in PNG). Thank you, Joycelin. 🙂

  5. I love pancakes! Especially banana and blueberry pancakes. ❤ Have you ever heard of scallion pancakes? It is quite popular here, and I wish we had Pancake Day.

  6. Reblogged this on Millie Thom and commented:

    I wrote this post exactly one year ago – and yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s Pancake Day again here in the U.K. So I decided to reblog this post and put the third quote of the challenge I’m doing on hold for a day.

    1. The races are fun to watch but not everywhere holds them. We havn’t been to see one for some years now – but they often televise the odd one for the TV evening news! It’s such an old tradition and, Britain is always a stickler for tradition! I must admit, I like to keep these old customs going, too. Thank you, Cynthia.

      1. Yes, it’s an age-old tradition. As you say, it really is just a lot of fun – something to brighten up the dim February days. The religious side of Pancake Day tends to be overlooked nowadays. And we all love to eat pancakes, even though we’re not ‘fasting’ during Lent. 🙂

      2. Yes I’ve always heard it was supposed to be a way to eat up all the fat and rich food before Lent, but I can’t say I’ve ever observed that aspect of it 🙂

      3. The original meaning of Pancake day has long since gone, Cynthia. Nowadays, Pancake Day (for most people) is just a day to stuff ourselves full of lovely pancakes. And we certainly don’t fast for 40 days after it, either. No doubt that the more devout people amongst us will do so, but to most of us the day’s just a bit of fun. And many countries celebrate it as Mardi Gras. Thank you so much for commenting. 🙂

      4. Yes it’s called Mardi Gras here, or sometimes Fat Tuesday. Although I hear that less now than when I was a kid. I guess the word “fat” is less socially acceptable today.

      5. It’s funny that ‘Fat Tuesday’ should be socially unacceptable as a name for the day. The ‘fat’ simply refers to the fatty foods that need using up before Lent, as you know, Cynthia. Mardi is simply French for ‘fat’. But I imagine people will automatically think it refers to overweight people. There’s so much publicity about being overweight now that people’s mind will jump to the first conclusion. It just seems funny that ‘Mardi’ is OK when ‘Fat’ isn’t. 🙂

      6. It could be one interpretation, or just my imagination, but it seems like people used to say “Fat Tuesday” more often. You’re right, there is a lot of cultural sensitivity about obesity and I think we avoid saying “fat.” Never mind that Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, haha, I guess it sounds nicer in French.

    1. It really is quite a British thing, I think. But many places do have Mardi Gras processions, like in New Orleans. That’s all based on the same idea. Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday’ – when all the fats in the house were used up, including eggs, before the fasting started for Lent. Anyway, it’s always good to read something you didn’t know about. I’ve learned an awful lot from reading people’s blogs. Thanks, Yinglan.

      1. Mardi Gras, that I have heard of but I’ve never participated in it. I should really take time to explore some of the fun food holidays. 🙂

  7. Andy and I were out on our morning walk (exercise) yesterday when some neighbors stopped their car beside us and called out “Happy Paczki Day!!” That is the Polish version of pancake day, a jelly filled doughnut. We sure felt silly getting our exercise while eating jelly doughnuts, but they were delicious.

    1. Ha ha. I can just imagine the scene. I hope you walked an extra few miles to burn up the calories. 🙂 I can only agree that jelly (we call it jam) filled doughnuts are gorgeous – and my willpower would have gone out of the window, too. Thank you for sharing this amusing story, Dinata.

    1. I don’t think there are too many people that dislike pancakes, whether they’re thick and fluffy – as you have them in the US – or thin and wide, like crepes. And there are so many gorgeous fillings to have in them, too.
      Thank you for the lovely comment Sadie. 🙂

  8. This is so interesting, and I really enjoyed this post. I love learning new things 🙂 I also find it interesting that lemon juice and sugar are a popular topping. The combination sounds delicious. Your pancakes look lovely Millie!

    1. Lemon juice and sugar is the traditional topping over here, Antonia. But there are so many different fillings nowadays. Most of them are sweet, of course, but pancakes are sometimes used for savoury fillings, too. 🙂

  9. When I was in elementary school (it was a bit ago- shhh, lol) and a girl who was born and raised in the UK; made these for a class project. I had never had pancakes that good before!! I couldn’t remember what they were called! Thank you for sharing this with us!!

    1. Thank you for reading the post, Stacy! 🙂 It’s funny how ‘pancakes’ are different in the UK to the ones you have in the US. From what I gather, yours are thicker and narrower than ours. As you’ll know from the ones you had at school, over here, pancakes are more like the French crepes, only a little thicker. All I can say is that no matter how thick or thin they are, pancakes are yummy! I can see you agree! 🙂

  10. It’s so wild how most to all cultures influenced by Catholicism stuff themselves with food and activities before they go into a period of sacrifice and purification (i.e. Lent) . Very insightful read!

    1. Ha ha! That’s very true. Eating (and drinking) seems to feature highly in these things. Although England hasn’t been a Catholic country since Tudor times, many of these old customs linger on. There are still many Catholic churches here, of course, plus many of other denominations. But we all love traditions here, and revel in keeping them alive. Pancake Day is now mostly just a bit of fun – and most people love pancakes, anyway. The fasting for Lent is the part we’re all happy to forget. 🙂

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