Pancake day history: Why do we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

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Once a year it is customary to stuff our faces with pancakes. Yes, I’m talking about Pancake Day! Or as it’s more correctly known by it’s Christian name, Shrove Tuesday. But how did “Pancake Day” arise? Why do we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

Pancake Day is always the day before Ash Wednesday, where Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian period of Lent. To understand why we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, it’s important to understand one thing about Lent: Lent has traditionally been a period marked by abstaining from certain foods. There were different variations of the fasting custom but one of the most popular ones was abstaining from animal products, such as meat, lard, eggs, and dairy. Sometimes sugar was also removed.

Hold on: eggs and dairy? This is beginning to sound a lot like the ingredients for pancake mix! In preparation for the period of Lent, Christian households wanted to finish off all the produce they would be unable to use over Lent, and because pancakes required many of these soon-to-be-forbidden foods, since their invention around the 1400s, a pancake feast was common in many households on the Tuesday before Lent began.

In many countries pancakes are the traditional food to be eaten, but different Christian countries around the world have varying traditional foods which they eat with the aim of using up all their animal products, eaten every Shrove Tuesday (and sometimes on the related pre-Lent feast day, Fat Thursday). For example:

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  • In Sweden they make a sweet bun called “semla” or “fettisdag buller“, which is made with butter, milk and eggs, filled with marzipan, topped off with whipped cream, and served with a steaming mug of hot milk. Estonia, Finland and Denmark have a similar Shrove Tuesday traditional food.
  • In Germany they make a diamond-shaped, deep-fried pastry called a fasnacht which is made from milk, lard and mashed potatoes.
  • In Portugal, they eat Malasadas, which are doughnuts made from lard or butter, eggs and sugar amongst other ingredients. Sometimes they are filled with cream, and they function very well in helping to use up animal products that are lying around.
  • In Scotland they eat bannocks of eggs and meal, and rather than calling the day Pancake day, they call it “Bannocky Day”.
  • In Italy, they have a special dove-shaped pastry called a “colomba“.
  • In Iceland, they feast on salted meat which is another animal product traditionally abstained from during Lent.
  • In Poland it is customary to eat special doughnuts called “pączki” and a special crispy pastry called “faworki” on Fat Thursday.
  • In France, traditionally, Lyon cold meat shops sold a special crispy pastry similar to the Polish “faworki”, called “bugnes” on Fat Thursday in the buildup to Lent.

With all this eating, it’s not surprising that Pancake Day is also known as Fat Tuesday (“Mardi Gras” in France, “Terça-feira gorda” in Brazil and Portugal, “Fettisdagen” in Sweden) and Bursting day (Sprengidagur in Iceland)!

Why aren’t you supposed to eat animal products during Lent?

Ok, so the great pancake feast is all to do with using up foods which are forbidden during Lent. But why aren’t you allowed to eat these foods during Lent in the first place?

The 40 day self-denial of selected pleasures (like animal products) in the countdown to Easter, is meant to be a spiritual experience in which Christians empathize with Jesus in the story of “the temptation of Christ“. This story is described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and they speak of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and nights after being baptized. During his time in the wilderness, he was subjected to temptations by the devil, but Jesus held strong and didn’t give in to temptation. Fasting from certain foods during Lent is a symbol of self-control against temptation, and the idea is that by imitating Jesus, you draw closer to him so that you can learn to think and act like him, to live a better life.

Some believe that you don’t need to fast to demonstrate self-control nor to learn Jesus teachings or live a better life. As one article put it, “Fasting, of and by itself, cannot produce godly self-control.”

In any case, the tradition of fasting during Lent is far less common today than it was in the past.

The tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday however is still going strong! And in some places, it has even lead to offshoot traditions like the “Pancake Day Race” in which contestants must run whilst tossing a pancake in a frying pan!

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Related articles
See other articles in the culture section including:
- Why do Jews eat Challah, the special Jewish Bread?
- Why do we celebrate Boxing Day?
- Why do we eat Turkey at Christmas?

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8 Responses to Pancake day history: Why do we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

  1. Ava says:

    Very good to know! Now I’ll be eating my pancakes whilst enlightened! :D

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