It's Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day

Bill
Bill Westcott
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It's time to get out those mixing bowls and start whipping. Today is Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day, all whipped into one unified batter.

When I was a lad, Shrove Tuesday wasn't something I cared about. It signified Lent was about to begin (tomorrow) and Lent to a young fellow in those days was a pain in the butt. The next day, Ash Wednesday, meant a dirty forehead of holy ashes and putting away my chewing gum, candy, and for over 40 days giving up several other treats I enjoyed. It was supposed to be my Lenten penance. Oh what a sinful lad I was way back then!

Scribblings of a Corner Boy -

It's time to get out those mixing bowls and start whipping. Today is Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day, all whipped into one unified batter.

When I was a lad, Shrove Tuesday wasn't something I cared about. It signified Lent was about to begin (tomorrow) and Lent to a young fellow in those days was a pain in the butt. The next day, Ash Wednesday, meant a dirty forehead of holy ashes and putting away my chewing gum, candy, and for over 40 days giving up several other treats I enjoyed. It was supposed to be my Lenten penance. Oh what a sinful lad I was way back then!

On the other hand though, I thoroughly enjoyed the pancake side of the special day. Looking back at those Shrove Tuesdays at home, much like Christmas, gives me pleasant and nostalgic feelings. They conjure up memories of my childhood so special that money couldn't buy.

I grew up in a family of 10. Shrove Tuesday would find my mother, like mothers everywhere, preparing the ingredients for her huge pile of pancakes to be devoured at supper time. The very first thing she did was bless the batch. That was very important. After all, inside each one would be a secret surprise item that would signify each of her eight children's futures. That was what old Irish and English customs dictated.

Two batches

Mom would make two batches, the first traditional white and the other would be dark brown made with molasses. Some of us preferred the molasses kind. She would make at least four dozen. Not all of them would be devoured at suppertime that evening. Several were put away in the fridge for mom and dad to enjoy with a cup of tea before heading off to bed. It would be the last time for quite awhile each would be able to splurge on sweets again. Mom was a devout and strict Roman Catholic, so naturally Lent was her time for abstinence. We were all under constant monitoring making sure we were doing our Christian duty.

The mystery pancakes were presented on a special platter. At the start we were only allowed to choose one pancake each. Inside would be a hidden clue to our individual futures. It was fun and believe it not I used to think all of this was true until I was told I was going to be a nun when I grew up.

A ring signified marriage; a button life as a bachelor; a sacred medal the priesthood or the convent; a straw, life on the farm; a match a career as a fireman; a nail, a carpenter, and a coin, wealth.

My sister was telling me the other day how Mom would use a quarter for the hidden coin.

"We used to feel the top of each pancake first to find the 25 cents," she said. "Everyone wanted to be rich," she said with a chuckle. "Mom didn't like us doing that. She said it was cheating," she added.

Remembering and writing about these events can be summed up by the words of the hit song by Bryan Adams, These were the best days of my life.

In Britain

Pancake Day also known as Shrove Tuesday across the pond in merry olde England is also a yearly observance before the start of Lent.

Shrove stems from an old English verb 'shive', meaning 'confess all sins." It is called Pancake Day because it is the one day of the year traditionally kept for eating Pancakes. Pancake recipes were a way to use up any stocks of milk, butter and eggs, which were forbidden during the abstinence of Lent.

I find that quite strange because these three commodities are real sources of vitamins, calcium and iron.

French influence

The earliest records of pancakes and pancake tossing appeared in the fifteenth century when the pancakes were a little thicker than our modern day ones. They would often have added spices for a little decadence. It is interesting to note that it wasn't until the eighteenth century and the influence of French cooking and their thin crepes that pancakes, as we know them today, evolved.

Old customs

In Ireland and the U.K. shroving was a custom in which children sang or recited poetry in exchange for food or money. 'Lent crocking' was one of the many customs of the day when children would go from house to house asking for pancakes. A form of mummering or trick or treating I guess one might say.

If they weren't given any goodies, broken crockery would be thrown at the door. These days one could be arrested and charged with vandalism for that.

Other customs and superstitions included the belief that the first three pancakes cooked were sacred. Each would be marked with a cross sprinkled with salt to ward off evil spirits, and then set aside for the feast to follow.

In Ireland, Roman Catholic girls were given an afternoon off to make their batter and the eldest, unmarried girl would toss the first pancake. Success meant she would be married within the year.

Welshmen also had their own particular customs where people would pass from door to door begging for flour, lard or butter. In some parts of Wales children would kick tin cans up and down the streets, believed to be the "putting away the pots and pans for Lent."

Other observances

Today, Pancake Races are a popular event throughout the U.K. Women dress up in colourful costumes and run through the streets with a frying pan in hand tossing pancakes into the air.

In the U.S. New Orleans' residents celebrate with their Mardi Gras Carnivals and Rio de Janeiro has equally raucous carnivals.

Carnival (festival of music and dance) became associated with Shrove Tuesday, in part from Spring Equinox celebrations practiced by the Romans and the ancient tribes of Europe. The word carnival comes from the Latin word camem levare, meaning to 'take away the flesh.' However, as in the New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro celebrations, public revelry and carousing have become the tradition for carnivals around the world. It was mostly as a result of the carnival celebrations that the Church restricted the observance to a single day.

Not everyone observes

For most Protestant believers, Shrove Tuesday holds no particular significance. For Roman Catholics and Anglicans however, the day is still observed with confessions and absolution, in addition to modest feasting and rejoicing.

Enjoy your pancakes white or brown and be sure to confess those sins! You have 40 days and 40 nights to get it done.

Source: Much of the information contained in this column was found on the website About.com; Inc. a part of the New York Times Inc.)

Bill Westcott writes from Florida.

Organizations: New York Times

Geographic location: U.K., Ireland, England New Orleans Rio de Janeiro Wales U.S. Europe Florida

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