Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Lent Season, but today we feast on pancakes!!
The History of Lent
The practice of Lent likely has its origins in practical reasons. In agricultural societies (as most Christian cultures were, in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Lent is first mentioned in historical context), winter crops were often scarce. Correspondingly, a period of fasting may have been a spiritual response to a physical need. The excesses and revels of Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, were, in all likelihood, a response to the same phenomenon, as people wanted to consume perishable goods (like meats, eggs, dairy products, and sweets) before they spoiled.
As the practice of Lent evolved, it began to take on the added significance of a preparation of new church members for the baptism of Easter Sunday. In the spirit of Christianity as a community of living faith, this period of fasting and preparation was eventually embraced by all Church members. Additionally, Lent was once referred to as quadragesima, which is Latin for the fortieth day before Easter. The word “Lent” itself is thought to come from a Germanic root, lenct, which initially meant “spring” and, later, “fast.”
Why 40 Days?
Lent’s duration is actually 46 days. However, as Sundays represent Christ’s resurrection, they are not commonly counted in the tally between Ash Wednesday and the Easter. The primary meaning of the fast is considered to be a way of identifying with the suffering of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, and of acknowledging his substitutionary death for the sins of humankind. The meaning of the season is further enriched by other biblical occurrences of the number 40 — Moses and Elias spent 40 days in the wilderness, in a similar manner to Christ, the Jewish people wandered for 40 years, as recorded in Exodus, and Jesus spent 40 hours in the tomb, prior to his resurrection.
SHROVE TUESDAY (Pancake Day), ‘Mardi Gras’. (‘Fat Tuesday’)
The name Shrove comes from the old middle English word ‘Shriven’ meaning to go to confession to say sorry for the wrong things you’ve done. Lent always starts on a Wednesday, so people went to confessions on the day before. This became known as Shriven Tuesday and then Shrove Tuesday.
Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes: In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.
Shrove Tuesday used to be a half-day holiday. A church bell, called the ‘Shriving Bell’, was rung signalling the start of the holiday and to call people to church to confess their sins. The church bell was rung at eleven o’clock in the morning, as a reminder to housewives to prepare their pancake batter and so the bell became known as the ‘Pancake Bell’. In some villages the church bell is still rung.
In other countries Shrove Tuesday is known as ‘Mardi Gras’. This means ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French and also comes from the idea of using up food before Lent starts. Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that observant Christians would not eat during Lent: such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn’t last the forty days of Lent without going off. The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras; meaning fat Tuesday. Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour. Many countries round the world have Mardi Gras celebrations and carnivals. Some of the most famous Mardi Gras or Carnival are in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, New Orleans in the U.S.A., Venice and Sydney.
Carnival, which comes from a Latin phrase meaning “removal of meat,” is the three day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday, (some traditions count Carnival as the entire period of time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday). The three days before Ash Wednesday are also known as Shrovetide. The entire three day period has now come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.
Pancake races are thought to have begun in 1445 in Olney.
No one is quite certain how the world famous Pancake Race at Olney originated. One story tells of a harassed housewife, hearing the shriving bell, dashing to the Church still clutching her frying pan containing a pancake. Another tells that the gift of pancakes may have been a bribe to the Ringer, or Sexton that he might ring the bell sooner; for ringing the bell signalled the beginning of the day’s holiday and enjoyment, no less than to summon the people to the service at which they would be shriven of their sins before the long Lenten feast. Pancake races are still held in the town today: Competitors have to be local housewives and they must wear an apron and a hat or scarf. Each contestant has a frying pan containing a hot, cooking pancake. She must toss it three times during the race that starts at the market square at 11.55 am. The first woman to complete the winding 375-metre course (the record is 63 seconds set in 1967) and arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bell ringer, and be kissed by him, is the winner. She also receives a prayer book from the vicar.
At the famous Westminster School in London, the annual Pancake Grease is held. A verger from Westminster Abbey leads a procession of eager boys into the playground where the school cook tosses a huge pancake over a five-metre high bar. The boys then race to grab a portion of the pancake and the one who ends up with the largest piece receives a cash bonus from the Dean.
Interesting Fact: The world’s biggest pancake was cooked in Rochdale in 1994, it was an amazing 15 metres in diameter, weighed three tonnes and had an estimated two million calories.
In Scarborough, on Shrove Tuesday, everyone assembles on the promenade to skip. Long ropes are stretched across the road and there maybe be ten or more people skipping on one rope.
The origins of this customs are not known but skipping was once a magical games, associated with the sowing and spouting of seeds, which may have been played on barrows (burial mounds) during the Middle Ages.
Shrove Tuesday sees the start in Ashbourne, Derbyshire of the world’s oldest, largest, longest and maddest football game. The game is played over two days and involves thousands of players. The goals are three miles apart and there are only a few rules. The ball is a hand-painted, cork-filled ball. The Pancake Bell
In the Midlands, the first pancake made was given to the chickens, to ensure their fertility during the year.
It was believed that the first three pancakes cooked were sacred. They were each marked with a cross before being sprinkled with salt and then set aside to ward off evil.
The pretzel indeed has its origins as an official food of Lent. However, much of the information available is based on tradition that has been handed down through the ages. Nevertheless, the Vatican library actually has a manuscript illustrating one of the earliest pictures and descriptions of the pretzel (Manuscript Code no. 3867).
In the early Church, the Lenten abstinence and fasting laws were more strict than what the faithful practice today. Many areas of the Church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.” Second, the general rule was for a person to have one meal a day, in the evening or at three o’clock in the afternoon, and smaller snacks to maintain strength. So a need arose for a very simple food which would fulfill the abstinence and fasting laws.
According to pretzel maker Snyder’s of Hanover, a young monk in the early 600s in Italy was preparing a special Lenten bread of water, flour and salt. To remind his brother monks that Lent was a time of prayer, he rolled the bread dough in strips and then shaped each strip in the form of crossed arms, mimicking the then popular prayer position of folding one’s arms over each other on the chest. The bread was then baked as a soft bread, just like the big soft pretzels one can find today. (To be fair, some traditions date the story to even the 300s.)
Because these breads were shaped into the form of crossed arms, they were called bracellae, the Latin word for “little arms.” From this word, the Germans derived the word bretzel which has since mutated to the familiar word pretzel.
Another possibility for the origins of the word pretzel is that the young monk gave these breads to children as a reward when they could recite their prayers. The Latin word pretiola means “little reward,” from which pretzel could also be reasonably derived.
Apparently, this simple Lenten food became very popular. Pretzels were enjoyed by all people. They became a symbol of good luck, long life and prosperity. Interestingly, they were also a common food given to the poor and hungry. Not only were pretzels easy to give to someone in need, but also they were both a substantial food to satisfy the hunger and a spiritual reminder of God knowing a person’s needs and answering our prayers.
Another interesting story involving pretzels arises in the late 1500s, when the Ottoman Moslem Turks were besieging the city of Vienna, Austria. The Turks could not break the city’s defenses, so they began to tunnel below ground. The monks in the basement of the monastery were baking pretzels and heard the sound of digging. They alerted the guard and saved the city.
The soft pretzels eventually evolved into hard baked pretzels. Another story is that a young apprentice baker dozed off while tending to the oven where the pretzels were baking. The oven fire began to die out, he awoke, and then stoked up the oven. In the end, he over-baked the pretzels. At first the master baker was upset, but soon discovered that the hard pretzels were also delicious. These hard pretzels were less perishable than the soft, and thereby easy to have available to give to the poor and hungry.