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The history of Pancake Day

The pagan roots of Pancake Day and Shrove Tuesday

Pancakes | Image: Pixabay

Our calendar year is full of a variety of festivities for both adults and children to enjoy. While some occasions may hog the limelight more than others (looking at you Christmas!), there’s nothing quite like the simple pleasures of Pancake Day – a day to flip batter into the air and overindulge in the sweet goodness of those that successfully land on your plate.

Just like many of our other Christian-themed annual holidays and celebrations, the roots of Pancake Day lie in pre-Christian pagan times. So this year, before we crack the eggs and begin whisking in the flour, let’s journey back in time and uncover the surprising history of one of our sugariest traditions.

When is Pancake Day 2024?

Pancake Day always falls 47 days before Easter Sunday and so every year the date moves between February and the beginning of March. Next year, Pancake Day is 13 February 2024.

What is Pancake Day?

Pancake Day, also known as Shrove Tuesday, is a day when households up and down the country make pancakes and lather them with a variety of toppings, the most popular being lemon and sugar.

Why do we celebrate Pancake Day?

'Shrove' comes from the word 'shrive', meaning to confess one's sins and to be absolved. Anglo-Saxon Christians started this practice of being 'shriven' on Shrove Tuesday as the day came before Ash Wednesday. It allowed them to confess and be absolved of their sins before Lent began.

During the 40 days of Lent, Christians are encouraged to eat plainer food and avoid indulging themselves in sweet treats. And so, Shrove Tuesday became the perfect opportunity to scoff up all the rich food in the household before Ash Wednesday. The pancake was the ideal dish since it combined all those fatty ingredients and cleared out the cupboards in one fell swoop.

It’s not just us Brits who enjoy sugary treats on Shrove Tuesday. In France and other parts of the world, Pancake Day is known as Mardi Gras, which translates as 'Fat Tuesday'. The principles of the day are the same, an opportunity to eat plenty of fatty foods before making sacrifices for Lent.

The origins of the pancake

So now we know what Pancake Day is and why it’s marked in our Christian calendars, but the origins of the pancake itself go back to caveman times. Scientists have found evidence of 30,000-year-old grinding tools that suggest Stone Age people were making flour. Analysts suggest the flour could then have been mixed with water to make a batter, which was then baked on hot rocks. The prehistoric pancake!

In support of this theory are the stomach contents of a prehistoric iceman discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. Otzi, as he is known, is believed to have walked this earth some 5,300 years ago. After scientists analysed his stomach contents they observed his last meal included red deer, ibex, ground einkorn wheat and charcoal. The charcoal and wheat combo might suggest he consumed the food in the form of a pancake cooked over a fire.

The Roman recipe

The next stop on the pancake history train takes us to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, both of whom were known to enjoy a pancake or two.

In an ancient Roman cookbook entitled De Re Coquinaria (‘On the subject of cooking’), the author, a man named Marcus Gavius Apicius, documents the first known recipe for pancakes.

Writing sometime during the 1st century AD, Apicius mentions a dish called 'ova spongia ex lacte' ('egg sponge with milk'). Although the recipe for this dish doesn't mention flour – a key ingredient in our modern pancakes – it is believed to be the earliest written example of a cake made in a pan, aka pancake!

Just like today, Apicius recommended it be consumed with something sweet, his main recommendation being honey.

Pre-Christianity symbolism

The final stop on our batter-filled historical journey takes us to the period before Christianity had swept across Europe and absorbed the multitude of pagan festivals into the Christian faith.

For thousands of years, people from varying cultures have marked and celebrated the equinoxes and solstices (longest and shortest days of the year).

The pagan Celts, who lived across a large area from Britain and Ireland to northern France, held a festival known as ‘Imbolc' to herald spring. Early Slavic people from Eastern Europe held a similar week-long celebration to mark the end of winter and the coming of spring.

Symbolism was an important part of ancient paganism and this is where the pancake reappears. Springtime represented new life, light conquering darkness, rejuvenation and the promise of sunnier times ahead. The long cold nights of winter were soon to be behind them as the abundance of brighter days lay on the horizon.

Round, hot, freshly baked golden pancakes came to represent the sun and those who consumed them would be filled by the power and warmth of the sun itself.

As Christianity engulfed, merged and adapted the pagan traditions, the humble pancake got swept along as well. Instead of representing the sun, the pancake became the perfect food on which to gorge and overindulge before Lent.

So, this Shrove Tuesday as you smother your pancake with your favourite toppings, remind yourself that whilst the pancake you're about to eat might only be a few minutes old, its ancestors were filling the stomachs of early man thousands of years ago.