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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Shrove Tuesday's Pancake Race

Just before Ash Wednesday, Catholics traditionally observe "Shrovetide," or "Carnival." Our English word "Carnival" comes from the Latin words carnem levare ("to take away the flesh"). This time just before the start of Lent is the final moment of the enjoyment of entertainments and feasting, culminating in "Shrove Tuesday" (Mardi gras, i.e. "Fat Tuesday").

This day of feasting, over the course of time, has sometimes been a time when people indulge in excesses.[1] But the days just prior to the beginning of Lent are really meant to be a time to put off things of the flesh. "Shrovetide" is intended to be a time in which we prepare to free ourselves from earthly delights so that we can turn more easily turn towards heavenly delights.

The days leading up to Ash Wednesday are a period of spiritual preparation when people are meant to go to the Sacrament of Penance. To be "shriven" is an old English phrase for "going to confession." In the Anglo-Saxon "Ecclesiastical Institutes," recorded by Theodulphus and translated by Abbot Aelfric about 1,000 A.D., "Shrovetide" was described as follows:

"In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so 'shrive' him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do in the way of penance."

Among the "Shrovetide" ("Carnival") customs that developed over the centuries, spiritual plays (masques) about Christ's Passion or the Last Judgment were put on to awaken the conscience of the people. These performances helped to arise awareness of the spiritual importance of making a good confession for Lent.

In England, "Shrove Tuesday" had a special significance. A custom arose in which pancakes were prepared and eaten on this day. In so doing, the people depleted their butter, eggs, milk, and fat, all of which were items disallowed in the traditional Lenten fast. The requirements of the strict fast are plainly understood from what Pope St. Gregory (d. 604 A.D.) wrote in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury:

"We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs."

Because the traditional pancake breakfast encompasses all these foods which are forbidden in Lent, "Shrove Tuesday" was the optimal time for a pancake breakfast. From the tradition of enjoying pancakes on "Shrove Tuesday" came a curious tradition of the pancake race. Here is the story of how this "Shrove Tuesday" custom came about.

A boy chorister of Winchester Cathedral takes part in the Shrove Tuesday pancake race at Winchester Cathedral

According to tradition, in the year 1445, when a woman of Olney in Buckinghamshire heard the ringing of the shriving bell, she happened to be cooking pancakes. She ran to the church wearing her apron and with her frying pan still in her hand. As the bell sounded to signal the beginning of the confessions at the church, the woman of Olney ran, lest she be late. From this charming story we have the local tradition observed still today of the pancake race in Olney and throughout England. Traditionally, the first dash in the pancake race is for local women competitors donning an apron, a hat, or scarf.

Just as eggs, milk, butter, etc. were restricted from the Lenten diet, for this same reason, Easter was celebrated with decorated eggs, butter, fresh breads, lamb, and other meats. As eggs return to our table on Easter, one should consider how the egg reminds us of Christ's Resurrection. Seeing a little chick pecking its way out from its eggshell, it emerges to new life. Likewise, Our Lord Jesus Christ emerged from the tomb to new and everlasting life.


[1] When "Carnival" (Mardi gras) devolved into debauchery for some people, the Church tried to restore the penitential nature of this time. In 1748, Pope Benedict XIV instituted the "Forty Hours of Carnival," whereby prayers were offered, and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in churches during the three days preceding Ash Wednesday. In a letter entitled, Super Bacchanalibus, he granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who adored the exposed Blessed Sacrament by offering prayers and making atonement for sins.

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