Shrove Tuesday: the history of Pancake Day

Initially a feast to celebrate the arrival of spring, Pancake Day (or Shrove Tuesday) is still one of the most indulgent days of the year


As with most European Christian traditions, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, started out as a Pagan celebration.

Before the Christian era, the Slavs believed that the change of seasons was a struggle between Jarilo, the god of vegetation, fertility and springtime, and the evil spirits of cold and darkness, and that they had to help Jarilo in his worthy efforts. The whole celebration of the arrival of spring lasted a week and a large part of this was making and eating pancakes. The hot, round pancakes symbolised the sun and the Slavs believed that by eating pancakes, they got the power, light and warmth of the sun.

The religious association of Shrove Tuesday began because the day preceding Ash Wednesday presented an opportunity to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk and sugar before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. The Christian liturgical fasting encouraged eating plainer food and avoiding food that would give pleasure – namely meat, dairy products and eggs.

The name Shrove Tuesday derives from the practice of Anglo-Saxon Christians going into confession the day before Lent, and being ‘shriven’ (absolved of their sins). A bell would be rung to call people to confession, which became known as the ‘Pancake Bell’ and is still rung today.

It is a moveable date on the Christian calendar as it always falls 47 days before Easter Sunday, so varies from year to year.

The traditional English pancake is very thin and is served immediately after frying, usually covered in golden syrup or lemon juice and caster sugar. The tradition of tossing or flipping them is also very old: “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.” (Pasquil’s Palin, 1619).

English pancakes recipe

Good Things in England (Persephone, £12) is a collection of 853 regional recipes dating from the C14th. First published in 1932, it was written by Florence White, the country’s first ever freelance food journalist, and is a true classic cook book, still publishing new editions today.

Somersetshire, 1852



2 oz plain flour
1 egg
1 gill of milk (a historical measurement, translating to 142ml)
A pinch of salt
2 oz clarified fat for frying
2 oz caster sugar
Lemon juice


1. Mix the flour and salt together, and make into a batter with the egg and milk.

2. Heat the frying-pan, add a little fat.

3. Make it quite hot, and pour in enough batter to cover the pan thinly.

4. When golden brown on one side, toss or turn and fry the other.

5. Squeeze a little lemon juice over it, dust with caster sugar, roll up and serve dusted with caster sugar.