28 Feb 2022

Pancake Day Traditions

All over the Christian world Shrove Tuesday is seen as the last hurrah before the strictures of Lent. Spiritually, it was a day for ‘shriving’ (confessing sins and receiving absolution). Socially, it was a day for using up milk, eggs and fat before the Lenten fast, and what better way to do this than by gorging on a delicious feast of pancakes?

Flipping Crazy

Rio de Janeiro may have its famously flamboyant Mardi Gras carnival, but the British have also developed their own more modest Shrove Tuesday customs.

The most widespread British pancake tradition is the pancake race. This is said to originate with the story of a woman who was busy frying her Shrove Tuesday pancakes when she heard the church bells and realised she was late for church. Her only option was to run to the service through the streets of the town brandishing a red hot frying pan and flipping the pancake to ensure that it did not become stuck.

This entertaining spectacle became the inspiration for pancake races all over the country. The most famous traditional pancake race, which dates back to 1445, is at Olney in Buckinghamshire. Competitors must wear a traditional costume of skirt, apron and head covering, and must run the High Street course, a distance of about 415 yards. They must flip their pancake at least twice: once at the start, outside the Bull Inn, and once on arrival at the church. 

This sublimely silly race can be seen taking place in the quadrangles and courts of Oxford and Cambridge Universities and even in the august precincts of the House of Parliament – it is frequently a way of raising money for charity, and the British always enjoy seeing grand people making fools of themselves in a good cause.

The pupils at Westminster School have developed their own peculiar pancake-grabbing custom. Called the ‘Pancake Greaze’, it can be dated to at least the mid-18th century. The school cook makes an enormous pancake, which is tossed over the Greaze Bar (a metal bar about 15 feet high) in the school hall. Representatives of each form in the school scramble to grab a piece of the pancake and the pupil who secures the biggest piece is the winner. Traditionally he receives a small cash reward, and a request is made to the Dean to grant a holiday for the day (which rarely happens).

Football Free-for-all

The inhabitants of some towns in England let down their hair before the privations of Lent with a game of Mob Football. The custom, which dates back to the 12th century, was probably once very widespread, but was somewhat curtailed by the 1835 Highways Act, which forbade the playing of football on public highways. Nevertheless, the tradition is still followed in Alnwick in Northumberland, Ashbourne in Derbyshire, Atherstone, in Warwickshire, Sedgefield in Country Durham and St Columb Major in Cornwall.

This exciting game is thought to be one of the oldest forms of football in the world. It is played on a truly epic scale: the goals are three miles apart and the match is played over two eight-hour periods. The hand-sewn leather ball is larger than a football and weighs around four pounds. There is no actual pitch and the game takes place all over the town; the ball is simply moved by a giant huddle of players, who push against the opposition. Hundreds of players take part in the game and there is great local rivalry between the teams. Goal-scorers, who are required to hit their ball against the goal three times, become local celebrities.

The Final Fling

Many of us will eschew pancake races and mob football, but the gourmet delights of Shrove Tuesday pancakes are enduringly popular. Some people will respect the historic tradition, and see a feast of pancakes as a last luxury before the austerity of Lent, when they may be undertaking some form of virtuous self-discipline (abstaining from alcohol, shunning chocolates, going meat-free, avoiding caffeine and so on). If you have chosen to take Lent denial seriously, don’t labour the point with your more easygoing friends. This heavy-handed form of virtue-signalling will just make them feel guilty or resentful.

Whatever your attitude to the late winter weeks that lie ahead, enjoy the indulgence of Shrove Tuesday. Whether it’s your last act of hedonism before the Lenten austerity, or just a way of lighting up a dull weekday, Shrove Tuesday is a meaningful milestone. Easter, the season of growth and regeneration, is just six short weeks away, the days are getting longer, and daffodils are in bloom. Savour your pancakes and remind yourself that winter is almost over …


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