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Pancakes to mark the start of Lent
Mar 13, 2014
M’s latest letter arrived too late for a beginning-of-Lent column. Let’s deal with it anyway.
Faithful reader M, wrote, “I’m a Jew but I enjoy the Pancake Supper at a nearby Anglican Church every winter. Why are Anglicans connected with pancakes? I asked my Anglican neighbour but he didn’t know any more than I do.”
Pancake Day, the name applied to Shrove Tuesday in English-speaking countries, is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) in French-influenced places. It’s Masopust (Farewell to Meat) in Czechoslovakia, Paczki Day (Doughnut Day) in Poland.
Shrove Tuesday falls the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Shrove, past tense of the verb, “to shrive,” means “confession, penance, and absolution,” and refers to the practice of being “shriven” in preparation for Lent, that is, confession is made; penance is imposed; remission of sins is administered. Being shriven reminds people of the season of penitence that’s coming.
Shrive, Middle English, entered Old English as scriƒan. From the Teutonic, it originated in the Latin, scribere (to write).
Lent, the 40 weekdays and six Sundays preceding Easter, is traditionally a time of fasting and penitence, commemorating Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.
Lent, shortened from the Old English, lencton, probably comes from the Middle Low German, lente (long). The word once referred to the lengthening days of spring. In fact, Lent originally meant, “spring.”
Lent, meaning the 40-day fast before Easter, has been used since Anglo-Saxon times. Curiously, this usage is confined to English.
Pancake Day evolved because that Tuesday before the start of Lent offered one final day of feasting on foods forbidden during Lent—meat, eggs, milk, butter, fat, etc. Pancakes were also a tasty way to use up eggs, milk, and butter before the period of fasting.
Apparently, pancakes have been part of Shrove Tuesday celebration since the early 15th century. Pancake recipes date to 1439.
The English have carried this tradition to wherever they’ve settled. They’ve also taken the Anglican religion with them. And that’s the connection between Anglicans and pancakes.
Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans and Rio are famous, but such galas happen all across Europe. “Carnival” starts five days before Ash Wednesday and finishes on Shrove Tuesday—Mardi Gras.  By comparison, pancakes at Anglican churches are exceedingly low key as celebrations go.
Mardi Gras, a French masculine noun, means, “Fat Tuesday”—last chance to eat fat for 40 days.
On Ash Wednesday, clergy mark the foreheads of the Faithful with a cross of ashes and perhaps, oil. The ashes come from the previous Palm Sunday’s palms. This custom, although practiced in Catholicism from at least 960, became formal church ritual only during the reign of Urban II in the 11th century. The rite originated because ashes have been a symbol of penitence from time immemorial. Ashes is derived from the Old English word, asce (grief).
Today, Ash Wednesday is observed by Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and also by several denominations not claiming Apostolic Succession.* Eastern Orthodox churches don’t observe Ash Wednesday.
*Apostolic Succession is the doctrine that asserts authority in a given Christian church is directly derived from the Apostles via an unbroken succession of bishops.