What is the meaning of Pancake Day and why do we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

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  • We stock up on lemons and sugar at this same time every year, but what is the meaning of Pancake Day and why do we actually eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

    Tossing pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is a firm favourite in all our family calendars – but why do we eat pancakes on Pancake Day and what is the meaning behind the celebration?

    As well as eating pancakes at home, comical-looking pancake races take place around the UK on Shrove Tuesday. This can involve large numbers of people in fancy dress bearing frying pans and frantically flipping pancakes to reach the finishing line first. But where did all this frivolous pancake eating and flipping begin?

    What is the meaning of Pancake Day?

    The origins of Pancake Day, or as it is traditionally known, Shrove Tuesday, are rooted in Christian religion.

    Shrove Tuesday is a day of feasting before the 40-day fast of Lent, which kicks off on Ash Wednesday. Like Easter, the date can change year to year. This is because it’s calculated by the lunar calendar. However, it always falls between 3 Feb and 9 March and will be 47 days before Easter Sunday.

    This year, Pancake Day 2020 falls on Tuesday 25 February. This is due to the fact that Easter Sunday falls on April 12.

    A father showing his daughters how to flip pancakes on Pancake Day.

    A father showing his daughters how to flip pancakes, despite not being born with hands, giving it her best shot!

    The meaning behind Pancake Day’s original name, Shrove Tuesday, comes from the religious tradition of going to confession to be absolved from sin ahead of the 40-day fast of Lent.

    ‘Shrove’ in Shrove Tuesday, comes from the word ‘shrive’ – defined in Collins English dictionary as: ‘to hear the confession of (a penitent)’ or ‘to confess one’s sins to a priest in order to obtain sacramental forgiveness.’

    So, Shrove Tuesday became the name for the traditional day of confession before Lent.

    Why do we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

    Although these days people give up all kinds of things for Lent, traditionally it was meat and dairy that were forbidden for 40 days.

    This meant that Shrove Tuesday was traditionally the last opportunity to use up eggs and fats. Hello pancakes! The perfect way of using up these ingredients.

    Eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was a practical choice before it became an annual tradition and tasty treat.

    Pancake Day ingredients.

    We’ve actually been eating pancakes for thousands of years – they’re made all over the world using different local ingredients. These days pancakes can be topped with anything from savoury pancakes with meat or even caviar to indulgent American style pancakes with fruit or chocolate – and plenty of maple syrup to boot.

    Far from the experimental pancake fillings we like to try today, the ancient Greeks and Romans liked a simple version of pancakes for breakfast.

    They made pancakes using just wheat flour mixed with water and a pinch of salt, then fried in olive oil. Typically they would be topped with honey, and sesame seeds or dates.

    Why do we have Pancake Day races?

    A black and white photo of a woman flipping a pancake on Pancake Day.

    While the reason we eat pancakes on Pancake Day has a fairly clear historical roots, the origin of pancake races is less clear.

    However, one of the best-known Pancake Day races in the country, in Olney, Buckinghamshire, is said to have been inspired by something that happened in 1445, when a woman of Olney heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to the church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan.

    In honour of this tale, women compete in aprons and scarves in the Olney pancake race to this day.

    Competitors on the starting line in the village of Olney, Buckinghamshire ahead of the annual pancake race, on March 8, 2011.

    Race competitors on the starting line in the village of Olney, Buckinghamshire ahead of their annual pancake day race.

    Shrove Tuesday being a day of general merriment, other traditions have sprung up. In Scarborough, Yorkshire, people take to skipping on the promenade. Long ropes are stretched across the road with ten or more people skipping on one rope. The origins of this custom is not known but skipping was once a magical game, associated with the sowing and spouting of seeds.

    And Shrove Tuesday football matches, that date back as far as the 12th century, still take place in Ashbourne in Derbyshire, Alnwick in Northumberland, Atherstone in Warwickshire, Sedgefield in County Durham and St Columb Major in Cornwall.

    Did you know these pancake facts?

    1. The world’s largest pancake weighed three tonnes – as much as a hippo! It was made in 1994 in Rochdale, Greater Manchester and took hours to cook. It measured 49 ft and 3 in long. That’s the same size as a double decker bus, the residents of Rochdale must have been hungry! It was eventually cut into 15,000 pieces, which were sold to raise money for local charities (though apparently it wasn’t very tasty).

    2. The tallest stack of pancakes recorded is 101.8 cm (3 ft 4 in). It was made by Center Parcs Sherwood Forest, in Rufford last year. James Haywood and Dave Nicholls made and stacked a total of 213 pancakes!

    3. Smaller is certainly better for flipping, though you’d be hard pushed to bean Dean Gould from Suffolk whose official record is 399 flips in 2 minutes (off the record, he says he’s managed 424!).

    4. The highest pancake flip ever recorded was 9.47 metres in 2010 – well done to American Dominic Cuzzacrea.

    5. The record for the most people tossing pancakes at the same time is 890. It was achieved at an event organised by the University of Sheffield (UK) in 2012. Over 1,500 people signed up for the event.