Pancake Day, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday … it’s not just all about the pancakes. This Tuesday, people will enjoy a final fling before the forty days of Lent, celebrating with traditions as diverse as pancake tossing, skipping, crazy ball games and exotic carnivals. Crowds of revelers will flock to carnivals in Rio, New Orleans, Venice and a host of other cities, joining in the fun with music, dancing, colourful costumes and parades.
Behind the glitz and glamour of carnival season lies the centuries-old call to Christians to attend church to confess and be ‘shriven’ – or absolved – of their sins, and it is from the word ‘shriven’ that we get the name of Shrove Tuesday. The date varies each year but it always falls 47 days before Easter Sunday and this year it is on 5th March. For some British towns and villages Shrove Tuesday is a day of long-established and slightly eccentric traditions.
Pancakes have a long history: they are first mentioned in a cookery book of 1439 and, as they are a good way to use up the last of the eggs and fats, pancakes have been eaten on Shrove Tuesday since at least the 1500s.
Legend has it that in the Buckinghamshire village of Olney in 1445, a housewife was busy making pancakes when she heard the ‘shriving’ bell ring to call everyone to church. In a fluster, she grabbed the frying pan off the heat and, still clutching the pan, ran to the church in her apron. To this day, every Shrove Tuesday, the women of Olney dress up in skirts and aprons and race with their frying pans from the Market Place to the church door. The first to arrive must toss her pancake and then receive the kiss of peace from the verger.
The ceremony of the Pancake Greaze is a very different sort of pancake race, played only at Westminster School and dating back to 1753. The chef tosses a giant pancake (reinforced with horsehair) over a 15ft high bar in the school hall and students jostle to grab the biggest slice. The reward is a sovereign for the winner, and – sometimes – a holiday for the whole school for the rest of the day.
Scarborough’s Shrove Tuesday celebrations have a long history, with seafront stalls back in the 1890s selling gingerbread, liquorice and coconuts. These days, people come for the Scarborough Skip: children and adults of all ages join in the skipping games, jumping over long ropes on the South Foreshore.
As far back as the 1600s, many towns and villages held football games on Shrove Tuesday. This continued until the Highways Act of 1835 banned playing football on public highways and the tradition of ‘mob football’ died out in all but a few strongholds.
One of these strongholds is Ashbourne in Derbyshire where the earliest record of Shrove Tuesday football is in 1667. Now called the Royal Shrovetide Football, it is a major event in the town’s calendar. Any fit and able person can join the game and teams are determined according to which side of Henmore Brook you were born. Those born on the south side are known as the Down’ards and they try to goal the ball at the old Clifton Mill. The Up’ards, born to the north, must goal the ball at Sturston Mill. Two respected local people are chosen to begin the match by ‘turning up’ the ball – throwing it into the waiting crowd. The ball can be kicked, carried or thrown, but it mostly travels in a series of ‘hugs’ through the town, across fields and even through the river. The hand-painted balls are bigger than a normal football and filled with cork so they will float. Once a goal is scored, the game begins again with a new ball and the scorer keeps the old one as a trophy.
The town of Alnwick upholds the annual Shrovetide Football tradition with rival teams from the parishes of St Pauls & St Michael’s meeting on a scarcely-defined pitch in the fields beside Alnwick Castle. The Duke or Duchess of Northumberland starts the game by throwing the ball from the castle’s barbican. After the game is won, the ball is thrown into the River Aln and the bravest players dive in after it. Whoever grabs the ball and gets it out on the opposite bank becomes the hero of the match.
Three other towns are renowned for their Shrove Tuesday ball games. At St Columb Major the ‘hurling’ game involves wrestling, throwing and carrying a small silver ball through the streets; at Atherstone the game is played with a large ball, no goals and no teams, and the winner is the person left holding the ball at the finish; and at Sedgefield, the four-inch diameter leather ball must be passed through a ring on the village green at the beginning and end of the game.
There’s one more Pancake Day tradition passed down from generation to generation and still kept by thousands of families in their own homes. It’s the tradition of pancake-eating.
The recipe is simple. Put 100g of plain flour, 2 eggs, 300ml of milk and a tablespoon of oil in a large bowl, and whisk to a smooth batter. Lightly oil a frying pan, heat it to medium temperature, then spoon in some of the pancake mix. Cook until golden on both sides.
Sprinkle with sugar, add a squeeze of lemon, then savour your own perfect Shrove Tuesday celebration!