I was quite surprised to find that today was Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is just that the day has never been that significant to me. Sometimes, probably most times actually, when I was a child we had pancakes. But, other than thinking there was some vague religious connection, I had little idea of what it was all about. So a few days ago I started to educate myself and these are a few of the things I have discovered. I hope that some of them may be new to you.
Firstly, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday; I think I knew that. And Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, a period of fasting for 40 days before Easter Sunday. During Lent rich foods like sugar, fats and eggs were traditionally eshewed so they are eaten in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, before the fast starts. This accounts for the alternative name Mardi Gras, meaning, in French, Fat Tuesday. According to Wikipedia shriving means to hear a confession.
The most complicated aspect of this subject is the timing of the event and this, as I hinted above, is determined by the date of Easter Sunday. In fact, Shrove Tuesday falls 47 days before Easter Sunday and can fall between 3rd February and 9th March in different years. The extra 7 days are the Sundays in Lent. Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon following March 21st. Originally, the first full moon following the spring equinox was used, but the date of this can vary with time zones. To avoid this variation the date was fixed at the 21st. The day of the first full moon is used because this is the Jewish feast of the Passover which is when, the Bible says, the last supper happened.
Well, I then started to look at Equinoxes because I thought they always happened on the 21st. Wrong. I also thought on that date there was equal day and night time. Wrong again, despite the fact that equinox derives from the Latin meaning “equal night”. It seems that the day, and time, of the equinox is when the Earth’s axis is at right angles to the sun. So if you were on the equator at midday, at that moment the sun would be directly overhead, straight up. Because the earth is rotating, the time zone you are in determines the time when this moment happens. This year the spring equinox will happen at 5.14 on 20th March in the UK time zone. If the sun were a point in the sky and not a sphere, and we had no atmosphere, then there would be exactly 12 hours before sunrise and sunset on the day of the equinox. But we see the sun before its centre appears and can still see it after the centre disappears below the horizon. So we get equal day and night time before the equinox.
Back to Shrove Tuesday and some new info, for me:
- Shrove Tuesday was at one time a half holiday in England starting at 11.00 when the local church bell rang.
- The tradition of pancake racing is said to have started when a woman, possibly living in Olney, busy making pancakes, heard the church bell and rushed to church carrying her frying pan.
- Pancake races occur quite widely but there are other traditions. In Scarborough, the road along the foreshore is shut and schools are closed early so the children and others can skip along the road.
- Olney in Bucks claims to have held pancake races every year since 1445. The contestants carry a frying pan with a pancake which has to be tossed a certain number of times during the running race.
- Since 1950 the towns of Liberal (in Kansas) and Olney have held the “International Pancake Day” race. The competitors run along two measured courses and the times are compared to determine the winner.