What is Shrove Tuesday and why do we eat pancakes on this day?

English Pancake Race
A pancake race in Olney, Buckinghamshire. Photo: Lestalorm (used under the Creative Commons Licence)

Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, is the day before Ash Wednesday which always falls 47 days before Easter. So while the date moves, it will always be between February 3 and March 9.

The name Shrove Tuesday comes from ‘shrive’, meaning gaining absolution for sins by doing penance.

The day gets its name from the Christian tradition of trying to be ‘shriven’ before Lent.

On this day, Christians would go to Confession, where they admit their sins to a priest and ask for absolution. A bell, known as the ‘pancake bell’ – which is still rung today – would be used to call them to Confession.

In the USA, the day is known as Mardi Gras which means ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French. This is because the day is customarily when we use up the fatty foods before Lent.

Why pancakes?

Pancakes have become associated with Shrove Tuesday as a way of using up some fatty foods before Lent.

In the past the idea was for families to remove the fattening (commonly the more tempting products) from their cupboards so they aren’t in their house during Lent.

As they aren’t traditionally eaten during the fasting season, eggs, milk and sugar need to be consumed beforehand.

Some claim the actual tradition of mixing the ingredients up for pancakes come from a pagan ritual. However, others say it is a Christian tradition, with each ingredient representing one of the four pillars of the faith. Eggs representing creation, flour as the sustenance (or the staff) of life, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity.

Related content: Pancake recipe for Shrove Tuesday

The pancake was featured in cookery books as far back as 1439 and the tradition of tossing or flipping them is almost as old: “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.” (Pasquil’s Palin, 1619).

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