Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Shrove Tuesday - pancakes and other crazy sports

Have you got your pancakes sorted?! :D

Today is Shrove Tuesday in the UK.  The last day before the start of Lent, Shrove Tuesday was named after the 'shriving' - confession and absolution - which was carried out on the day, and it was also an excuse for general feasting and merrymaking before the restricted diet, penance and self-denial of Lent.

The most famous custom for Shrove Tuesday is pancakes and the fun of flipping or tossing pancakes is mentioned as far back as in Panquils Palinodia of 1619:

It was the day whereon both rich and poor
Are chiefly feasted with the self same dish,
Where every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter filled, as well as heart can wish;
and every man and maid do take their turn,
and toss their pancakes up for fear they burn;
And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound,
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

Here's the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge trying out their pancake-flipping skills :D

It was considered bad luck not to serve up pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.  Before the Reformation, a midday bell called the faithful to be 'shriven' on Shrove Tuesday and the practice continued in many places with the bell often being referred to as the 'Pancake' bell and a signal for the pan to be put on the fire and schoolchildren and apprentices to stop work for the day.

There doesn't seem to be any symbolic reason connecting pancakes with the day before Lent so the practical reason that pancakes used up remaining milk, eggs and fat before the Lent fast makes sense!

There are still many Pancake races held in the UK today, notably at Olney in Buckinghamshire where for the last 568 years the women of the village have continued an annual tradition which, local folklore has it, started in 1445 when a woman panicked when she heard church bells ringing from her kitchen and, fearing she would be late for a Shriving service, she ran through the town arriving at the Church door in her apron and carrying her frying pan!

The 'pancake greaze' at Westminster School in London combines pancakes with some of the rougher sports that are customary on Shrove Tuesday.  The greaze, meaning scrum or crowd, has been held in the school hall on Shrove Tuesdays since 1753.  The head cook ceremoniously tosses a horsehair-reinforced pancake over a high bar, which was used in the 16th century to curtain off the Lower School. Members of the school fight for the pancake for one minute, watched over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey (as Chairman of the Governors), the Head Master, the rest of the school and distinguished or even occasionally Royal visitors. The pupil who gets the biggest piece is awarded a gold sovereign.

Several other events take place by tradition on Shrove Tuesday.  In the Alnwick Football Game, known as Scoring the Hales, the ball is brought from Alwick Castle in a procession headed by the Duke of Northumberland's piper and thrown up at 2pm.  The teams are now much smaller than the 150 a side that used to be common and to win, a team has to score three goals, or hales, through wooden goals that are 4'6" wide and decorated with greenery.

In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the game takes place mainly in the town.  The teams can be of any size and are traditionally comprised of those born north of the River Henmore (Up-ards) and those born to the south (Down'ards).  It starts at 2pm and ends at 5pm and if a goal is scored, whoever scores it gets to keep the ball and a new ball is turned up.  The two goals are three miles apart (!) at Shurston Mill and Clifton Mill.

The 'football' game at Atherstone in Warwickshire also preserves many of the features of medieval Shrovetide games.  Reputedly played in an unbroken tradition dating back 800 years, it takes places in the town streets and there are no teams and no goals and virtually no rules!!  The purpose of the game is to get hold of the ball and to still be holding it when the game finishes.  The ball is much bigger than an ordinary football at 27" diameter and weighing four pounds.  It's made of leather and filled with water to stop it being kicked too far.  All the shopkeepers wisely board up their windows and doors before the game starts in Long Street, commencing at 2pm, finishing around 5pm.

There's more on 2014 Pancake Day events here :)

Happy Flipping!

image from wikimedia commons