Shrove Tuesday, which is also called Pancake Day for reasons we will explore further in this article, is always on a Tuesday in February or March. This year, it takes place on February 21. It falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the 40-day pre-Easter abstaining and fasting period we know as Lent. Celebrated in multiple countries around the world, Shrove Tuesday events range from confessing in church to devouring pancakes by the dozen.
History of Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday
People have marked the start of Lent from the very early ages. A document called the Ecclesiastical Institutes, from approximately 1000 A.D., states how it was custom for Christians to confess their sins before Lent, and thus, the sins would be ‘shriven’ (the old term for ‘absolved’). This is also where the name ‘Shrove’ comes from. It is derived from ‘shriven.’
History tells us that this festival, like many other European Christian festivals, was born out of a ‘pagan’ tradition. The Slavs — before the Christian era — believed that the changing seasons arose out of a struggle between Jarilo, their god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime, and the evil spirits of cold and darkness. The Slavs believed it was their duty to help Jarilo out of the darkness. They believed that pancakes imbued them with light, warmth, and the power of the sun itself. So, they made and ate pancakes (their version of it) for an entire week.
By the 16th century, a week-long ‘Shrovetide’ was being celebrated in the days preceding Lent. Eating foods made with butter, eggs, fat, etc. (like pancakes!) became traditional around this time because people would have to finish up all the eggs, milk, and sugar in their larders before Lent and by Ash Wednesday. It made sense to put all these ingredients into one dish, and then proceed to eat everything up the day before. Parishes would ring the church bell at noon. It was a signal for people to begin frying their pancakes. These bells came to be known as ‘Pancake Bells’ and they still ring in some parishes across the U.K. even today.
Traditionally, Shrove Day celebrations across the U.K. feature a lot of pancakes, and one particularly famous tradition is the pancake race, which is held in villages and towns around the country. Fancily dressed people race each other to get to the finish line, while flipping cooked pancakes inside a frying pan. According to legend, a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, lost track of time while cooking pancakes. She only realized this when she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She immediately ran out of her house to attend services while holding on to her frying pan, occasionally tossing the pancake around to prevent it from burning. The most famous races now take place in this exact location, in Olney in Buckinghamshire. The competitors here are all housewives and must wear an apron and a hat or scarf. Other England towns play Shrove Tuesday football games, which links to the 12th century ‘mob football’ games. By the 17th century, the Highways Act banned public football games, and this tradition gradually faded away. Versions of this event have been celebrated in certain towns like Alnwick in Northumberland and Sedgefield in County Durham.
Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday timeline
In Olney, Buckinghamshire, a housewife forgets the time, hears church bells ring, and rushes to get to services while holding onto her cooking pan — with a pancake inside it; this alleged true story creates a nationwide Shrove Day tradition that is celebrated to this day.
Where before people called them johnnycakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks, among other names, now they are being called ‘pancakes’; by the 19th century, ‘pancakes’ become common terminology to describe this food item.
A “Vogue” article describes pancakes as difficult and not worth eating at all unless they are of paper thinness and succulent tenderness; they have since changed their views, and their website even offers multiple recipes for amazing pancakes.
Where once pancakes were thicker and made with a lot of spices, now, they are thin crepes much lighter than what we used to see; this mostly comes from French influence in cooking.
Dominic “Mike” Cuzzacrea wins an award called “Flipping a pancake while running a marathon.
Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday FAQs
What is Shrove Tuesday in the U.K.?
Shrove Day (or Pancake Day) is the day just before Ash Wednesday, leading up to the 40-day Lent period. It was traditionally a day of fasting, confessions, and absolution (or ‘shriving’ – an older term) from all sins.
Is Pancake Day a U.K. thing?
Pancake Day is not just celebrated in the U.K. Many English-speaking countries — Ireland, Australia, Canada — celebrate Pancake Day too.
Is pancake Tuesday celebrated in America?
While the sentiment remains the same, the celebration itself differs in the U.S. Here, people celebrate with the name Mardi Gras.
Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday Activities
Cook (and relish) some pancakes
Try out new (or old favorite) pancake recipes. Make them simple, adorned with lemon juice, or adorn fluffy-style pancakes with chocolate syrup and bananas. Try pancake recipes from around the world in a little pancake-a-palooza!
Host your own pancake race
Gather friends and family for a pancake race around the backyard. If you can, get permission from local authorities to turn this into a community event.
Play some football (or soccer)
Indulge in another traditional Shrove Tuesday game — mob football. Play a friendly game of footie with your pals and continue this tradition even after this day!
5 Fun Facts About Pancakes
52 million eggs
Fifty-two million eggs are used to make pancakes on the day — this means around 22 million more eggs are used on this day than on an average day.
Different names in different countries
Shrove Tuesday is called Fastnacht in Germany, Sprengidagur in Iceland, Mardi Gras in France and other parts of the world.
The most famous event
A world-famous celebration of this event is the Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janeiro; our day occurs at the end of Carnival.
The first three pancakes were sacred
In the early ages, people would mark each of the first three pancakes with a special symbol — a cross; they would then be sprinkled with salt to ward off evil spirits and kept aside.
Scotland added charms to their pancakes
Called Bannocks, these pancakes had a special charm added while making the dough; any unmarried person that found it would be hitched by the end of the year, according to local beliefs.
Why We Love Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday
We like the thought behind this day
It is one last meal before we abstain from meat, milk, junk food, and more. We say, let's eat!
We love pancakes
Who doesn’t love pigging out on these soft, fluffy (or thin) pieces of cooked batter? With countless recipes for every single taste and preference, pancakes are many people’s favorite food, and we love a day that features this dish in its celebrations.
It unites the world
We love how this one celebration is held all across the globe. With so many different customs, and traditions, and one common idea — to celebrate food.
Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday dates