Pancake Day is the popular name for Shrove Tuesday, the day preceding the first day of Lent. In medieval times the day was characterized by merry-making and feasting, a relic of which is the eating of pancakes. Whatever religious significance Shrove Tuesday may have possessed in the olden days, it certainly has none now. A Morning Star correspondent who went to a cross-section of the people he knew to ask what they knew about Shrove Tuesday received these answers!
"It's the day when I say to my wife: 'Why don't we make pancakes?' and she says, 'No, not this Tuesday! Anyway, we can make them any time.'"
"It is a religious festival the significance of which escapes me. What I do remember is that it is pancake day and we as children used to brag about how many pancakes we had eaten."
"It's pancake day and also the day of the student rags. Pancakes — luscious, beautiful pancakes. I never know the date — bears some relationship to some holy day."
The origin of the festival is rather obscure, as is the origin of the custom of pancake eating.
Elfrica Viport, in her book on Christian Festivals, suggests that since the ingredients of the pancakes were all forbidden by the Church during Lent then they just had to be used up the day before. Nancy Price in a book called Pagan's Progress suggests that the pancake was a "thin flat cake eaten to stay the pangs of hunger before going to be shriven" (to confession). In his Seasonal Feasts and Festivals E. O. James links up Shrove Tuesday with the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) festivals of warmer countries. These jollifications were an integral element of seasonal ritual for the purpose of promoting fertility and conquering the malign forces of evil, especially at the approach of spring.
The most consistent form of celebration in the old days was the all-over-town ball game or tug-of-war in which everyone let rip before the traditional feast, tearing here and tearing there, struggling to get the ball or rope into their part of the town. It seems that several dozen towns kept up these ball games until only a few years ago.
E. O. James in his book records instances where the Shrove Tuesday celebrations became pitched battles between citizens led by the mayor and the local church authorities.
Today the only custom that is consistently observed throughout Britain is pancake eating, though here and there other customs still seem to survive. Among the latter, Pancake Races, the Pancake Greaze custom and Ashbourne's Shrovetide Football are the best known. Shrovetide is also the time of Student Rags.