The three days preceding Ash Wednesday and Lent were traditionally called ‘Shrovetide’ culminating in ‘Shrove Tuesday’ or what has become more commonly known as ‘Pancake Day’. This was a time for people to go to church and seek absolution from sin with penance. Pancakes were and still are believed to be of good luck in many areas of the world as they contained many herbs and food stuffs associated with the promotion of prosperity and longevity. Made from batter and fried like a thin cake in fat the ingredients symbolise four crucial points of significance at this time of year :
Eggs - Creation
Flour - The staff of life
Salt - Wholesomeness
Milk - Purity
All herbs and spices are believed to evoke good or lucky qualities. Pancake Day falls on Shrove Tuesday and was associated with misfortune although today the reverse is true as it is believed to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday means that you will not go without food during the coming year. In order to ensure that this will occur the pancakes must be eaten before eight in the evening (20.00hrs.) or bad luck will ensue. This day became one of celebration announced by the ‘Pancake Bell’. The sounding of this bell meant that villagers could return home and prepare the pancakes, and join in games and general merriment (pancake races and tossing the pancakes are just two examples of common traditions). In some areas of England (UK) the sounding of the bell is documented as far back as 1450, with the most well known being in Olney, Buckinghamshire.
The custom itself can be traced back several centuries when Shrove Tuesday was the last day that any form of festivities could take place before the period of Lent (see also Lent). The actual word Shrove derived from the word ‘shrive’ which meant ‘confession through penance’. This original meaning was symbolic of the time when festivities would take place to purify the individual and area with the eating of pancakes. Later this day was also known as ‘Derby Day’ and in some instances (UK) more extreme displays of such confessions and driving out of evil forces abounded such as identifying prostitutes and cock fighting. The authorities eventually declared these practices to be outlawed and so people took to tossing the pancakes instead of fighting cocks or the humiliating of prostitutes. This practice of cock fighting was also known as ‘threshing the hen’ and was purely a Shrovetide sport which involved throwing cockerels with tied wings and feet as far as possible. In Somerset, England (UK) it later became common practice for daffodils to be thrown instead, these being called ‘Leny-cocks’.
In some parts of rural England (UK) this day is still known as ‘Lent-crocking Day’. Tradition has it that this was a time of charity also exampled by the following tradition and verse:
‘When the door is opened, the hero, who is perhaps a farmer’s boy, with a pair of black eyes sparkling under the tattered brim of his brown milking hat
covered with cow’s hair and dirt like the inside of a blackbird’s nest, hangs down his head, and, with one corner of his mouth
turned up into an irrestistible smile, pronounces the following lines -
I be come a shrovin,
Vor a little pankiak,
A bit o’ bread o’ your baikin’,
Or a little truckle cheese
O’ your own makin’.
If you’ll gi’me a little, I’ll ax no more,
If you don’t gi’me nothin, I’ll rottle your door.’
If the door was not answered a load old broken earthenware pots would be hurled at the door!