Pancake Day in Great Britain: Start Flipping

March 3, 2011 1 Comment by admin

Olney Pancake Race photo by robinsmyerscough

It’s almost Pancake Day so get out your frying pan and lace up your trainers.  Tuesday 8 March, the day preceding Ash Wednesday, is known by a variety of names.  The French call the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent “Mardi Gras,” while the Germans refer to it as “fetter Dienstag” and the Italians use the term “martedi grasso” (all of which translate literally to “Fat Tuesday” in English).  In the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries the day before the beginning of Lent is called Shrove Tuesday, often known as Pancake Day.

On Shrove Tuesday during the Middle Ages, it was customary for the faithful to make confessions and seek absolution from a priest prior to the beginning of Lent.  The English verb to shrive means “to hear the confession of and absolve.”  A bell would ring in the villages to call people to confession.  Since austere Lenten regulations prohibited the consumption of eggs and milk, the bell also signaled the townswomen to prepare their pancake batter for a final batch before the Lenten fast commenced.  The bell came to be called the “Pancake Bell.”  It is still rung in many villages across the UK.

According to legend, in 1445 a woman in Olney, Buckinghamshire was making pancakes when she heard the shriving bell.  She rushed to the church clutching her frying pan with half-finished pancakes, hoping to confess her sins before the noon cut-off time.  The tradition of pancake racing was born and competitors were thereafter seen tossing and flipping pancakes in the air before crossing the finish line.

The Olney Pancake Race is now famous throughout the world and continues to this day.  This year’s race is open to houswives 18 and older who have lived in Olney for at least three months.  Participants must don an apron and hat or scarf to compete.  They are also required to toss the pancake three times during the 415 yard race, serve it to the bell ringer, and receive a kiss from him. 

Scarborough, North Yorkshire also holds a popular pancake event.  This year’s event, named “Strictly Pancakes,” will be held in St. Helen’s Square near the Market Hall.  The race begins at 12:15 pm and contestants are judged on skill and style in addition to time.  The race is preceded by the ringing of the pancake bell and features a series of tasks and obstacles.  There is no entry fee to compete and only a partner and a frying pan is needed.

If you find yourself in London on Shrove Tuesday, there are a number of pancake races from which to choose.  One of the most popular is the Great Spitalfields Pancake Race at the Old Truman Brewery (Nearest Tube: Liverpool Street).  The event begins at 12:30 pm with costumed racers competiting in teams of four vying for the grand prize of an engraved frying pan.  There is also a prize for the best dressed team.  

Another London favourite is the Parliamentary Pancake Race which features members of the Houses of Parliament racing against members of the press whilst carrying frying pans full of pancakes.  The race takes place in Victoria Tower Gardens at 10:30 am (Nearest Tube: Pimlico or Westminister).  The event raises funds and awareness for the brain injury charity Rehab UK.  Attendance is free for spectators.

So no matter where you find yourself in the UK on Shrove Tuesday, you’re bound to find a pancake race in which to partake.  So dust off the frying pan, start flipping, and enjoy. 

One Comment

  1. Emm
    1334 days ago

    Pancake Day used to be one of my very favourite days of the year, along with Bonfire Night. I really should try reclaim some of the magic from my youth as I do nothing to observe these days any more.


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