It’s pancake day. For many, Shrove Tuesday, as it is also known, is associated with little other than the making of pancakes, but there is of course more meaning to the day than that. In the Christian calendar, the day marks the eve of Lent, a time of abstinence, when traditionally people shrive, or confess and seek forgiveness for their transgressions, hence shrove Tuesday. To mark this time of fasting, the rich foods like eggs and milk were used up before the fasting season of Lent, hence the pancakes. It appears that these traditions predate Christianity, and like many festivals, existing pagan events were repurposed.
The day has similar names in other languages, and whilst Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – is the most famous, Fastnacht, Vastenavond and even Carnival are also used. However, the day is about more than eating pancakes. In some parts of England, the day marks an unusual sporting event. Mob football happens, where whole villages compete against each other to get a ball into a goal of some description. Among the most famous are the games at Alnwick, Ashbourne and of course my local game, Atherstone – home to what is called the Atherstone Ball Game – where this old tradition continues. In Olney, the annual pancake race continues, as it has done since 1445, with contestants dressed as housewives with aprons – irrespective of their gender – racing along a 415 yard course, tossing a pancake.
There is the related festival of Fat Thursday, also known as Fetter Donnerstag, Weiberfastnacht, Tłusty czwartek or torkos csütörtök, which is popular in central Europe, and rather than producing pancakes on the day before Lent, doughnuts are produced on the Thursday before. Now, I like pancakes and I like doughnuts, so in the interest of cultural diversity, I feel it is right to mark both occasions….
Every year on pancake day, though, I remember the pancake day rap from the BBC children’s television programme, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. I don’t know why, but as well as eating pancakes, I will be singing this all day…