On Tuesday evening, I sat down with my wife to enjoy several delicious pancakes. It was Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
As I spread my pancakes with lemon and sugar, I wondered why we celebrate this day.
Pancake Day is mentioned in Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well) and it is clear that it is an ancient ceremony. The word ‘shrove’ come from the word to ‘shrive’ or confess ones sin. The word Lent is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘spring’.
In the Christian calendar, Lent is the period of fasting to commemorate Christ’s fast in the wilderness. Lent started on the rather sombre Ash Wednesday. Palm branches saved in church from the previous Easter would be burned and the ashes used to place a cross on the forehead of parishioners.
Shrove Tuesday was the last chance that people had to have a good feast and a bit of fun.
Sometimes a ‘Pancake Bell’ would be rung at noon to advise housewives when it was time to start cooking.
There was also a chance for some sport, particularly cock-fighting and football. In the 12th century, one chronicler wrote: “After dinner on Shrove Tuesday the youths go into the field to play at the ball”. Football matches could last for hours and there could be many people on each side.
In Dorking, just across the border in Surrey, there was a tradition of Shrove Tuesday football matches until the early 20th century.
The Sussex Express of March 3, 1900, reports: “There were scenes of an extraordinary nature in the streets of Dorking when a determined attempt was made by local residents to observe the custom of playing football throughout the streets of the town.
“The match lasted from 2pm to 6pm by which time the streets were impassable due to the crowds.”
Another pastime was “Throwing at Cocks” where a poor cockerel was tied to a post and sticks and stones thrown at it until it was dead. There is a record of this ‘game’ being played in Lewes as late as 1780 although it was still going on in other places 20 years later. The Sussex Advertiser of March 1, 1802, calls for this ‘barbarous custom’ to be abolished. Apparently cockerels were called ‘Shrovetide Martyrs’.
Children would also go from door to door in the hope of being given a spare pancake or two. The Sussex Express in 1893 reports children singing “Open the door and let us in – For we be come a Pancaking”.
Because Shrovetide was a time for feasts, gatherings were held with food and dancing. A Shrovetide celebratory dinner was held in South Heighton as late as 1939. Shrovetide was also marked with dances and lectures.
Meat was forbidden during Lent but it was in order to eat fish. Local fishermen would celebrate by long-rope skipping. This was the last time they would be able to skip until Good Friday. I have found a reference to Brighton fishermen skipping on Shrove Tuesday and I am sure it would have occurred all along the Sussex coast. There were some exceptions to the ban on meat. Beggars were allowed to eat meat and you could also obtain a licence from the local church. At All Saints Church, Hastings, the parish registers in 1609 show that several licences were granted.
Meanwhile, inside the church depictions of Christ and also crucifixes were traditionally hidden from view by being covered in cloth.
Sometimes the whole of the chancel would be hidden from view and at St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston, hooks in the ancient roof timbers show where a large ‘lenten veil’ was fixed.
Over the years, these ancient traditions have been gradually dropped although I am pleased that for one day at least one tradition is remembered and I get to taste some delicious pancakes.