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