I realize today is neither a Tuesday nor the day before the start of Lent, but with our series on English Country Dance and our guest bloggers the time got away from me. A couple of weeks ago, those who celebrate Lent began the season once again. In nineteenth century England, young ladies and gentlemen also celebrated Lent. For 40 days leading up to Easter they had to refrain from indulgence foods like cakes and pastries on Monday through Saturday. Theatres withheld many programs. It was also considered bad luck to marry during Lent.
Lent began with a church service on Ash Wednesday. However, the day before Ash Wednesday was a time for a good deal of fun. Shrove Tuesday was originally the day you confessed your sins to a priest and got “shriven.” A more modern name is Pancake Tuesday. Because Lent was a time of fasting and abstinence, the lower classes generally attempted to empty the house of any rich foods before Lent. These foods included milk, butter, eggs, and fat. So, on Pancake Tuesday, you mixed all your milk, butter, and eggs with wheat flour and spices into pancakes, fried them up, and pigged out!
But Pancake Tuesday wasn’t just about eating pancakes. This was the nineteenth century’s version of Mardi Gras. Some communities held pancake parties, with people dressed up as the Protector of the Pancakes, First Founder of the Fritters, Baron of Bacon-flitch, and the Earl of Egg-baskets. At Westminster School in London, it was the tradition to have the cook come out and “throw” a pancake over the bar that separates the dining room between the younger and older students. The student who catches the pancake before it hits the flow (or grabs the biggest portion after it hits the floor) wins a prize.
Other communities held pancake races. At the sound of a pancake bell, often the bell from the local church, women ran a course carrying a frying pan with a pancake in it. They had to successfully flip the pancake at least three times before they reached the goal. My favorite course is still run in Olney in Buckinghamshire. In the nineteenth century, any woman over 16 could run the 415-yard course. The winner received a prayer book from the vicar and a kiss from the Pancake Bell Ringer, the fellow who rang the bell calling the devoted to church.
I picture him looking a lot like Hugh Jackman. Whip out those frying pans, ladies! On your mark, get set . . .