The Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday are known as “Shrovetide,” from an old English word “shrive,” meaning “to confess,” a name gotten from the tradition of going to Confession in the days before Lent started. Shrovetide is traditionally the time for “spring cleaning,” and just as we clean our houses in these days in prepation for Lent, we also “clean our souls” through confession so we can enter the penitential season fresh.
Shrovetide is the last two days of “Carnival,” an unofficial period that began after the Epiphany and which takes its name from the Latin carnelevare, referring to the “taking away of flesh” (meat) during Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday, the day following Shrove Tuesday. Catholics want to eat while they can and get the frivolity out of their systems in preparation for the somber Lenten spirit to come.
The Tuesday of Shrovetide is a particularly big party day known as “Mardi Gras” (French for “Fat Tuesday”) — or “Pancake Tuesday” because fats, eggs, and butter in the house had to be used up before Lent began, and making pancakes or waffles was a good way to do it. In many places, especially in England, pancake races became popular and remain popular today. In these races, women must run while flipping a pancake so many times, and whoever crosses the finish line first wins. The largest pancake race in England is in Olney, in Buckinghamshire. There, the women must wear a dress, apron, and bonnet, and flip the pancake three times — while ensuring it is intact after they cross the finish line, of course. The story told to explain the origins of this race is that in 1445, a homemaker heard the shriving bell (the bell rung to summon people to confession on this day) as she was busy working in her kitchen. Not wanting to be late, she rushed about and ran off with her skillet still in hand.
At Westminster School in London, the “Pancake Grease” is held, an event during which the schoolmaster tosses a very large pancake over a bar that’s set to about 15 feet high. The children make a mad scramble for it, and whoever emerges with the largest piece is the winner.