Before my family’s fast begins in Lent, we follow the Anglican tradition of feasting on pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. But why pancakes? Unless my husband is making his rich Swedish pancakes, really crepes with spoons of sugar added, pancakes don’t seem like the kind of food many would refrain from. I grew up thinking of them as an occasional easy supper with eggs. Nothing fancy.
It wasn’t until I read Frederica Mathewes Green’s Facing East about the Orthodox Lent that I understood: no meat, cheese, milk, eggs, dairy, olive oil, or any alcoholic drinks. As ancient Christians did, the Orthodox withdraw first from meat ten days before Lent begins. Pancakes suddenly make a lot of sense the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. One wouldn’t want to leave the milk, eggs, and dairy products wasting until Pascha, or Easter, so one made pancakes. Or as it goes with other cultures and ethnicities: cream-filled pastries (Norwegians), buns filled with almond paste (Swedish), and fried doughnuts (German-Americans).
The strictness of the ancient Lenten fast helps me to recognize why some groups began to celebrate carnival (perhaps from carnelevarium, the removal of meat) as they approached their fast. I see the current excesses in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday. England’s Shrove Tuesday is simpler. During the period of Elizabeth I, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were Shrovetide. After people requested a confessor to “shrive” them, absolve them of their sins, on Sunday or Monday, they were ready for Tuesday to be a day of merrymaking: eating pancakes, running races with them, and playing ball games before their Lenten fast.
Some sources report that Shrove Tuesday and other carnival celebrations are the church’s replacement for pagan events occurring before nations were converted to Christianity. Even if so, I don’t let this possibility disturb me. As C.S. Lewis makes use of Bacchus in leading revelry in Prince Caspian, I join in celebration of Christ’s life as a believer who has had a taste of the greater revelry to come. I am experiencing the reality according to G.K. Chesterton that was just a “shadow” with paganism. With pleasure, I’ll play games and have pancakes — preferably with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.