Pancake Day, celebrated in London with a pile of pancakes and golden syrup
Phote credit: hellolightbulb/ Unsplash

Customs uncovered: Pancake Day and Shrove Tuesday

Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, was traditionally as much about sporting events as it was about stuffing your belly with fritters. Here's what you need to know.

As frivolous and fun as Pancake Day may appear to be, it’s one of our longest-lasting traditions, and one of those that is impossible to pin to a specific date of origin. Undoubtedly religious in nature to begin with, these days, for most people, it’s an excuse to get the frying pan out, load up on flour and dairy products, and generally throw dieting caution to the wind.

For others, however, Pancake Day (or Shrove Tuesday) is an important day in the traditional, ritualistic calendar, with at least three British towns still taking the streets and the fields to indulge in a lengthy, bruising game of football – possibly the nearest we’ll ever get to the origins of ‘The Beautiful Game’.

What you’ll find in this article…

Shrove Tuesday meaning and origins

What does Shrove Tuesday mean? To answer that question we have to begin with an understanding of Lent: the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, decreed by the early Catholic Church as a period of abstention. Fasting, penance and piety were strictly observed. Meat, dairy products and sex, or any combination of the three, were out.

Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559

However, in 1538, Henry VIII – no stranger to a pancake – relaxed the rules and put dairy products back on the menu. According to the historian, Steve Roud, fish was promoted as a meat substitute, albeit as a way to support the economy and the country’s safety – “eating fish supported the fishing industry, which in turn bolstered shipping and thus supported the Royal Navy”. Lent came and went (and came back again) during and after Puritan times, and the religious aspects of it gradually began to wane.

The word “shrove” comes from the verb “to shrive”, which meant to confess and absolve oneself of sins.

Shrove Tuesday was therefore the last day of Shrovetide, the rather rambunctious period before the country entered Lent. The word “shrove” comes from the verb “to shrive”, which meant to confess and absolve oneself of sins, although – as we shall see – Shrove Tuesday became the pinnacle of a festival of indulgence (“the biggest and wildest of early spring”, according to Professor Ronald Hutton) that, in some parts of Europe, lasted from the tail end of Christmas right up until early March.

What was Shrovetide?

In Britain, Shrovetide – the last few days before Lent, and a right old blowout – commonly began on Shrove Saturday, took in Collop Monday, Shrove Tuesday, and culminated on Ash Wednesday, when the penitence (and, presumably, the meat sweats and heart palpitations) began to kick in.

As Steve Roud writes, “It is difficult for us nowadays to understand the almost desperate merrymaking that took place, in the face of six weeks of enforced restricted diet and best behaviour.” This is certainly obvious in the amount of over-eating documented (John Taylor wrote in 1621 that particpants, “ballast their bellies with [enough] meat for a trip to Constantinople”), as well the boisterousness that masqueraded as “sport”.

Put bluntly, Shrovetide was a period for eating too much and punching your neighbour in the head without suffering immediate reprecussions (read on… you’ll see).

Egg Saturday

In England, Shrove Saturday (three days before Shrove Tuesday) was sometimes known as Egg Saturday. In some areas, this was celebrated with a custom called ‘Egg Shackling’. People (often children) would raid their chicken coops and compete for prizes based on their hoards. Winners would be congratulated for the whitest egg, the brownest egg, the biggest egg, and even the smallest egg. Not that the eggs would stick around for long enough to bask in their glory. They’d quickly be placed into a sieve, shaken thoroughly, and each egg that cracked would be removed until the strongest egg was proclaimed the solitary victor.

Inevitably, this led to an excess of shelled eggs, and so…

Collop Monday

Collop Monday was another excuse to stuff yourself silly with the kind of food that Lent would soon forbid. Collops (leftover ham and eggs… of which there were now plenty) made up the usual fare, hence the name, although this varied from region to region. Collop Monday seems to have fallen out of fashion as the centuries have rolled on, but it can still be found in parts of Cornwall, where it is known as Peasen (or Paisen) Monday, due to their preference for pea soup.

What is Pancake Day?

Pancake Day (sometimes known as Fast Eve) is the most prominent remnant of the Shrovetide traditions. It’s tempting to think that it might be a modern interpretation of something much older, but in fact, it’s old in itself. People have been tossing pancakes on Shrove Tuesday since at least the 1600s, and Ronald Hutton quotes the poet William Warner praising, “Fast Eve pan puffs” as early as 1586.

Printed in Steve Roud’s book, The English Year, the following quotation is taken from the delightfully named, catchily titled pamphlet, Pasquils Palinodia: And His Progresse to the Taverne; Where, After the Survey of the Sellar, You are Presented with a Pleasant Pynte of Poeticall Sherry (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.

Pancakes, or ‘fritters’, were cooked on Pancake Day as a way to use up the perishables – eggs, butter and flour – before the six weeks of self-deprivation began. Traditionally, the cooking of the pancakes would begin with the ringing of the midday church bells. In times past, this would’ve been a summons for the parish to be “shriven”, but it seems to have morphed into a kind of starting pistol – a signal to cram in as much eating, over-indulging and over-exerting as possible before the midnight chimes brought the festivities to a close. Some employers even gave their employees a half-day holiday to ensure that they got things crammed in without letting the side down.

When is Pancake Day 2022?

Pancake Day falls on March 1st, 2022, and February 21st, 2023 (should you want to set your feasting alarm).

Pancake races

For many readers of a certain age, Pancake Day races are perhaps a distant but joyful memory, although there are still towns and villages that continue the custom.

For those that aren’t sure what a pancake race is, it tends to involve a group of people (traditionally ‘housewives’), running a pre-agreed distance while tossing pancakes in frying pans. The tossing and the running have to continue simultaneously – simply running with a stationary pancake in your pan is not considered sporting – and the winner is the person who manages this extraordinary physical feet in the fastest time, without stopping or dropping the pancake.

Olney Pancake Race

The good people of Olney, Buckinghamshire, claim to be the first of the world’s Pancake Day racers. According to local tradition, a harried Olney housewife heard the midday bell on Shrove Tuesday, 1445, and legged it (for reasons best known to herself) to the local church clutching her loaded frying pan. Subsequent locals took up her cause, racing to the church earlier and earlier each year in the hope that they could bribe the bellringers into ringing the bell to start Shrove Tuesday festivities sooner.

The modern representation of the Olney Pancake Race (recently sponsored by Teflon) involves ‘housewives’ (read: any woman dressed up in a headscarf, skirt and apron) running the 480 metres from the Bull Hotel to the church door. As with many British rituals and customs, the race ceased during wartime, but was, in this case, resurrected in 1948 by the Reverend R. W. Collins.

Amazingly, it became an international event in 1950 when the town of Liberal (Kansas, USA) spotted news reports concerning the Olney race, started a race of their own, and then challenged the Olney residents to an annual test of physical endurance and tossing temerity. The winners are decided on time trials. This hotly-contested international fixture has recorded a winner every year since 1950 (apart from 1980 when a van blocked the Olney finish line). At the time of writing, Liberal has the upper hand, having wone 36 heats to Olney’s 26.

Shrovetide football

The origins of football, or at least the game that we recognise under that name in the UK, deserve a whole article of their own. Suffice to say that the earliest recorded reference to “fut balle” comes in 1424, in Scotland, when it was forbidden by the king on pain of a fourpence fine. An earlier record (William Fitz Stephen’s account of London, 1180) speaks of an annual “game of ball”, which probably bore some similarity to a handful of games that survive in England to this day, each of which are played on Shrove Tuesday once the pancakes have gone down.

It should be noted that early Shrovetide Football seems to have a lot in common with modern football hooliganism, the twist being that the hooligans were on the pitch rather than spectating. Philip Stubbs, writing in protest against the sport in 1583, described it as, “a devilish pastime… sometime their necks [are] broken sometime their backs, sometime their legs; sometime their arms; sometime one part thrust out of joint… sometime the noses gush with blood, sometime their eyes start out…”

You get the general idea, and it certainly seems that Stubbs took a certain amount of gory pleasure in creating this seemingly unending medical report, going on to describe the implements used on the field of play as, “a hundred such murdering devices”. After going on for more time than any less-obsessed person would deem necessary, he sums things up rather neatly with the words, “whosoever scrapeth away the best, goeth not scotfree”. Succinct and to-the-point, don’t you think?

There are only two rules: the ball cannot be transported in a vehicle, and play cannot continue after midnight. Other than that, anything goes.

Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

You’d be hard-pressed to find a spectacle more medieval than the Ashbourne Shrovetide Football events that take place on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday each year in Derbyshire (although, as we’ll see, to do so you’d only really have to travel as far as Warwickshire). There appear to be only two rules: the ball cannot be transported in a vehicle (although this rule was only introduced in 1957), and play cannot continue after midnight. Other than that, anything goes.

You may be wondering why a game of football would need a vehicle to transport the ball in the first place. In the case of the Ashbourne Shrovetide games, the answer is obvious: the ‘goals’ are three miles apart – one at Shurston Mill and the other at Clifton Mill – and the ‘pitch’ can be just about anywhere; this game takes to the streets, the fields, and often goes for a dip in the River Henmore. Kick off is usually around 2pm, a single match could easily last 10 hours, and scoring a ‘goal’ involves tapping the ball on an old, purpose-built stone three times. Doing so wins you the ball (which is worth winning, because it’s hand-painted locally, and it’s massive).

Sounds easy enough, right? Sure, until you realise that hundreds of people can (and will) join either team, and that the ball rarely moves at any impressive speed due to the crush of people (known as “the hug”) chasing it. The teams are made up of Ashbourne people born north of the River Henmore (known as the Up’ards) and those born to the south (the Down’ards). As one of the interviewees in the above video points out, these people are friends every other day of the year, but, “you’d punch your best mate,” if it meant winning the ball during the Shrovetide Football matches. If you thought modern-day football was tribal, you aint seen nothing yet.

Alnwick Shrove Tuesday Football

Kick off for the Alnwick Shrove Tuesday Football matches is at 2pm, and takes place in the pasture near Alnwick Castle, Northumberland. While these games were once 150-a-side, they’re quite a lot smaller these days and often feature children. According to Steve Roud, the earliest recorded reference to the Alnwick events is 1762, although he concedes that the tradition is likely much older than that.

This version of the medieval game perhaps most closely resembles modern football, given that it takes place in a field and that they’re aiming to score goals (known here as “hales”) by getting the ball between two verdant goalposts 137cm in width. The winner is the first to score three hales and run off with the ball (like a spoilt child who doesn’t want to play anymore), ideally getting it off the pitch and over the River Aln.

Locals believe that the game began after an argument between a Northumbrian and a Scotsman ended with the latter’s head being kicked around a field – a gentle, post-pancake pastime if you’re anything like Philip Stubbs.

Atherstone Ball Game

So far, so pedestrian. If you’re looking for “the most brutal sport on earth”, look no further than Atherstone, Warwickshire – an event that makes Fight Club look like playschool, the chief difference being that, while Brad Pitt had three rules, the people of Atherstone have precisely zero.

At 2pm on Pancake Day, a ball 69 cm in diameter, weighing nearly two kilograms (filled with water to make it even more sluggish and unpredictable) is lobbed from an upstairs window on Long Street into a baying crowd. There are no teams; it is, quite literally, a free-for-all. For three hours, the ‘players’ attempt to hog the ball – the winner being the person who is holding it when the klaxon sounds at 5pm.

As if to underline the lack of rules, a common tactic in years gone by has been to knife the ball, thus deflating it, and then conceal about your person until the ruckus ends. In any other sporting event, this would look a lot like cheating. Not so at Atherstone, where a player could do this quite early on in the game and then dive back into the melee on the off-chance that they might enjoy a couple of black eyes and a cauliflower ear before the day is out.

Given that the Atherstone Ball Game takes place within the confines of Long Street, local shopkeepers board up their establishments to minimise the destruction. And make no mistake: the destruction is very real. The events in 2020 were halted early due to a medical emergency involving one of the stewards. Not for the faint of heart.

Forgotten Shrovetide Sports

Throwing at Cocks involved either pegging a cockerel on a length of string and then throwing hefty objects at it, or burying the cockerel so that only its head was showing above the ground and getting blindfolded participants to take aim with a blunt tool. Whoever killed the cockerel got to keep it and, presumably, eat it. This disturbing custom seems to have had practical origins: Ronald Hutton points out that, “it made sense to kill off poultry if eggs were forbidden in Lent, and to a burtial society it was equally logical to have some fun in the process.”

Thankfully, the last recorded instance of this taking place was in Quainton, Buckinghamshire, in 1844.

Ludlow Rope Pulling was less blood-thirsty and was essentially a tug-of-war between two halves of the town’s population – approximately 1,000 people per team – both yanking on a 33-metre length of rope. While the origin of this sport is unknown, it was brought to an end in 1851 as it was deemed too dangerous (basically, Health and Safety stepped in). A pared-down version was reintroduced in the early 1980s and lasts to this day, involving the regulars at two Ludlow drinking establishments – The Bull and The Feathers – tugging at one another on Boxing Day.

Are there any Pancake Day folk songs?

There are only two entries in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library archive relating to ‘Pancake Day’, and both of them are references to tunes (as opposed to songs) or folk dances. The Bodliean Broadsides archive offers no results whatsoever.

Searching the VWML for “Shrove Tuesday”, however, brings up 55 results, most of which relate to Roud number 1516, variously called ‘The Bell Tune’, ‘Shrove Tuesday Song’, ‘Shrovetide Song’, ‘Isle of Wight Shrovers’, ‘Pit a Pat’, ‘Pancake Song’, and ‘Tippety Tippety Toe’. The folk song collector, Cecil Sharp, collected a few variants of this – some with melodies, some without – in the early 1900s.

Cecil Sharp’s Pancake Song transcript. Photo credit: EFDSS

On April 8th, 1908, Sharp collected the above song (possibly more of a chant) from a group of chidren in Stockland, Devon. The lyrics read:

Tippety tippety toe
Please to give me a pancake
Then I’ll go
Off with the kettle and
On with the pan
Tippety tippety toe
Shrove Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday
Jack went to plough
His mother made pancakes
She didn’t know how

As with so many of these rituals rituals, the chant seems to have accompanied a form of door-to-door begging, in which children would visit the wealthier inhabitants of the village and sing in exchange for a bit of hot batter. An alternative chant, known as ‘Pit a Pat’, went as follows.

Pitt a patt, a pan’s hott
l am come to scroving (shroving)
Lard’s scarce and flour’s dear
I cannot sing no longer,
My throat is so dry.

This song in itself had countless versions, often varying from town to town. Ronald Hutton notes that, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, the children were heard to chant…

Knick a knack upon the block;
Flour and lard is very dear,
Please, we come a-shroving here.
Your pan’s hot, and my pan’s cold,
Hunger makes us shrovers bold
Please to give poor shrovers something here.

…while the children of nearby St Mary Bourne rhymed the following words:

Knick knock, the pan’s hot,
And we are come a-shroving,
For a piece of pancake,
Or a piece of bacon,
Or a piece of truckle cheese
Of your own making.

A similar tradition could be found in Wales, and was recorded in 1964 from a chap called Williams, a postman in Sarn Mellteyrn, near Aberdaron, Caernarvonshire. The recording can be heard on the National Museum of Wales website.

Woman of the house and good family,
Please may I have a pancake?
Mother is too poor to buy flour
And Father too lazy to work.
Please may I have a pancake?
My mouth is dry for want of a pancake.
If there is no butter in the house
Put a large spoonful of treacle,
And if there is no treacle in the house
Give a terribly large pancake.
Terribly, terribly.

An alternative take on this begging tradition occurred across the West Country and up into Camarthenshire. Known variously as Lent Crocking, Nicky-Nan Night, the Drawing of Cloam, Dappy-Door Night, or Pan Sharding, it involved mischief when the shroving was not forthcoming – a little like the ‘trick’ in ‘trick or treating’. Anyone who acted in a miserly fashion, refusing the visiting shrovers their pancakes, could expect retaliation in the form of beaten doors, stolen gates, or the pelting of the house with pieces of broken crockery. However, if caught, the shrovers could expect quite unusual punishments themselves. As Ronald Hutton explains, In Devon they’d be expected to, “turn an old shoe hung painfully close to the fire”. Painful for the fingers and the nose.

Traditional Pancake Day recipe

Far from being a modern dish, Steve Roud dates the earliest use of the word ‘pancakes’ to the mid-1400s, pointing out that, even at that age, “there is no reason to believe that the delicacy itself was new at that time.”

Traditional pancakes for Pancake Day. Photo by M Draa/Unsplash.

For traditional (and very delicious) Pancake Day treats, try this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 125g plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 300ml milk
  • 25g melted butter
  • Oil

Method

  1. Combine the flour and salt evenly in a mixing bowl.
  2. Create a little well in the middle of the flower/salt mix.
  3. Crack the eggs into the well; add a little milk and bit of the butter, melted.
  4. Whisk the eggs, gradually moving outwards to bring in the flower/salt mix.
  5. Pour in the remaining milk and keep whisking until you have a thick but runny batter.
  6. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a frying pan and make sure the base of the pan is well coated.
  7. Add about a ladle’s worth of batter and swirl it around the pan until you can no longer see the base of the pan.
  8. Cook for approximately 30 seconds until bubbles appear on the upper surface of the pancake. When the surface appears to have solidified considerably, turn the pancake over. Flipping or tossing the pancake can be a lot of fun and part of the tradition, but don’t try it unless you’ve been shown by someone experienced, otherwise you could find yourself wearing scalding-hot, fried batter.
  9. Cook for another 30 seconds. The pancake should appear golden on both sides before being served.
  10. Serve with sugar and lemon juice to taste.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).