In England Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, is also known as “Pancake Day” (for more on Shrove Tuesday, see Shrovetide). Hundreds of years ago the English observed a strict fast throughout Lent, during which they ate neither meat nor dairy products. They hurried to consume all these foods in the last several days before Lent, lest they go to waste during the fast. One of the quickest ways to use up butter, milk, and eggs was to make and eat pancakes. Hence Shrove Tuesday became “Pancake Day.”
In medieval times church bells tolled on Shrove Tuesday reminding people to confess their sins to a priest before the start of Lent. In England, the Reformation, a sixteenth-century religious reform movement, reduced the importance of the pre-Lenten confession. The bell-ringing custom remained, however, although people reinterpreted its meaning. They began to hear the clanging bells as a reminder to use up all their butter, milk, and eggs before the start of Lent. Thus the Shrove Tuesday bell became known as the “pancake bell.”
In the year 1621, English writer John Taylor penned a humorous description of these proceedings:
. . . by that time that the clock strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell rung, called the Pancake-bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful of manners or of humanity; then there is a thing called wheaten flour, which the sulphury, Necromantic cooks do mingle with water, eggs, spice and other tragical, magical enchantments, then they put it by little and little into a frying-pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused, dismal hissing (like the Lemean snakes in the reeds of Acheron, Styx or Phlegeton) until at last, by the skill of the cooks it is transformed into the form of a Flap-Jack, which in our translation is called a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people do devour very greedily. (Hutton, 152)
In past times English lads went door to door on Shrove Tuesday, begging for pancakes and other soon-to-be-forbidden treats. Folklorists have preserved one of the rhymes that accompanied this annual outing:
Dibbity, dibbity, dibbity, doe, Give me a pancake and I’ll go; Dibbity, dibbity, dibbity, ditter, Please to give me a bit of a fritter. (Lord and Foley, 63)
Perhaps this old begging custom inspired Westminster School’s “Pancake Greeze,” an event which continues to this day. At 11 a.m. on Shrove Tuesday the school cook tosses a large pancake up over a crowd of students chosen to represent their grades. The boys scramble for possession of the flapjack and the one emerging with the cake – or the largest piece of it – receives a monetary reward from the school dean. The cook also receives a reward for his participation in this annual event.
The annual pancake race that takes place in the town of Olney, England, is perhaps the most famous pancake-related event that occurs on Shrove Tuesday. According to local legend, this race began in the year 1445 when a housewife engaged in making pancakes heard the church bells summoning worshipers to confession. Not wanting to be late for church, but at the same time not wanting to leave her pancake uncooked, she wrapped a scarf around her head and dashed off to church, still wearing her apron and still flipping her pancake in the skillet. This unusual feat attracted the attention of the neighbors. In succeeding years they followed her example, and a local tradition was born. Each year the housewives of Olney race each other to the village church, wearing housedresses, aprons, and headscarves, and carrying a skillet containing a flapjack, which they are required to flip three times during the race. The prize for winning is a kiss from the verger, or church caretaker.
In 1950 the housewives of Liberal, Kansas, decided to take up Shrove Tuesday pancake racing. They challenged the women of Olney to a competition to see whose winner turned in the best time. Liberal’s pancake race has thrived since that day, and a friendly rivalry has grown up between the two pancake-loving towns. Liberal racers follow the same rules and receive the same prize as do their colleagues in England. These two well-known events have inspired other communities and church congregations to sponsor pancake races on Shrove Tuesday.
Although few English people maintain the strict Lenten fasting that gave rise to these events, many still crave pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. This customary dish is also consumed in the United States, where some churches hold “pancake suppers” on this day.
Hole, Christina. Easter and Its Customs. New York: M. Barrows and Company, 1961. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of theSun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the WorldOver. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971.
For the history of the pancake race in Liberal, Kansas, see the following page, written by local resident Virginia Leete:
The following site, posted by the town of Olney, England, furnishes a description and photos of the pancake race at:99/gallery/pancake99.htm