What’s With the Pancakes?

by Sue Taggart

Pancake Week in the US is February 10th – 16th. I suspect most people have no idea where the celebration of the pancake actually began.

A great European tradition, Shrove Tuesday (also known as Pancake Day, Pancake Tuesday, Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday), is actually the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Like Easter, the date of Shrove Tuesday changes each year. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and

Canada, pancakes were always eaten on Shrove Tuesday—hence “Pancake Day”. Pancakes became the food of choice so that rich ingredients such as eggs, milk, and sugar could be used up before fasting begins at the start of Lent.

In England, as part of community celebration, many towns held traditional Shrove Tuesday “mob football” games, dating as far back as the 12th century. The practice mostly died out in the 19th century, after the passing of the Highway Act in 1935, which banned playing football on public highways. Shrove Tuesday was once known as a “half-holiday” in England. It started at 11:00am with the ringing of a church bell. On Pancake Day, pancake races are held in villages and towns across the United Kingdom. The tradition is said to have originated when a housewife was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake.

The pancake race was a common festive tradition in England in particular. Participants with frying pans raced through the streets tossing pancakes into the air, catching them in the pan whilst running. Some towns still carry on the tradition of pancake races and many families still make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, which happens to be on February 12th this year. Many other Catholic and Protestant countries have their own versions of “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras”, but the pancake race is uniquely English!

Pancake Week seems to have its origins in Russia, where Shrovetide was part of both pagan and Christian traditions. In Slavic mythology, Shrovetide is celebrating the imminent end of the winter. On the Christian side, Shrovetide is the last week before the onset of Great Lent, which this year falls on March 11-17. During Shrovetide week, meat is already forbidden to Orthodox Christians, making it a myasopustnaya nedelya meaning  “meat-empty week” or “meat-fast week”. It is the last week during which milk, cheese and other dairy products are permitted, leading to its other name of “Cheese-fare week” or “Pancake week”.

So if you make a trip to IHOP on pancake week, you’ll know that it’s not just another marketing ploy!

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