Today is known to many as ‘Pancake Day’, and more traditionally as ‘Shrove Tuesday’. If you are of French origin (and that means the Southern USA and other places) it is ‘Mardi Gras’.
You’ve heard all of these names – but what do they mean?
Well, it’s all about Lent, and the idea within the Christian faith of spending time making do with less whilst re-assessing your life and setting a firm foundation for the next phase of the year.
Humans have always been familiar with fat times and lean times, and this is woven into the pattern of pretty much all faiths.
‘Mardi Gras’ literally means ‘Fat Tuesday’ and was a day of rich feasting before a period of living frugally. Of course the other thing about humans is that they love a good party – and so Mardi Gras became quite a carnival!
The Germanic Tribes of Northern Europe (that means us!) were a little less extravagant, but the idea of a feast of sweet things before the confessing of sins and granting of absolution over the Lenten fast became a part of our lives.
In Germany it is ‘Fastnachtsdienstag’, and fancy dress and a school holiday are involved. The Dutch have a carnival of ‘Vastenavond’, and in Spain it is ‘Omelette Day’.
What about the word ‘Carnival’? Literally it means ‘putting away the meat’ (‘carne’ – as in ‘carnivore’).
And that was where for us the pancakes came in, the idea being to use up all of the sugar and fat in the store cupboard.
What of the name of the day itself – ‘Shrove’?
It is an odd word, and yet you probably use it every day…
It’s all about confession and absolution.
The Romans brought writing – ‘scribere’ – and writing brought laws and instructions.
So when Christian Priests needed a word to describe (oops there’s the word again!) the required penance for a sin, they used this word as meaning ‘an instruction to be followed’. Priests would ‘shrive’ a confessing sinner, and so to get the feast and fun you needed to have been shrived – hence Shrove Tuesday!
And how do we use it today?
Have you ever given someone or something ‘Short Shrift’?
When a prisoner was to be executed, the job could be done in various ways; if the prisoner was to be treated badly, he or she would be given insufficient time to confess and be absolved, meaning no journey to heaven…
They would be given ‘short shrift’.
Enjoy your pancakes, and enjoy a sprinkle of the background story with your sugar and lemon!