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Why Do We Celebrate Pancake Day?

Pans at the ready: Pancake Day (i.e. Shrove Tuesday) is next week. But why do we celebrate Shrove Tuesday every year? And where does the tradition of making pancakes come from?

Here at Mentor, we’re firm believers that learning should be fun. And there’s no better way to brush up on your history than by making – and eating – pancakes, right? In the lead-up to Pancake Day, we wholeheartedly encourage you to get in the kitchen with your young ones: not only can you take the opportunity to talk about the background of this annual celebration, but you can also get stuck into cooking as a family (which is a great way for youngsters to improve motor skills, practise arithmetic, and a whole lot more!).

What is Shrove Tuesday (i.e. Pancake Day)?

Shrove Tuesday is linked to the Christian observances of Lent and Easter. Shrove Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent – a period of abstinence and penance – lasts 40 days (not including Sundays), and finishes on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). Shrove Tuesday falls on a different date each year because of its connection to Easter, and the fact that Easter is determined by moon cycles: the Bible says that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection took place just after Jewish Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon after vernal equinox.

‘Shrove’ comes from the word ‘shrive’ which means ‘to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.’ Historically, Christians would go to church for confession and to be absolved of their sins on Shrove Tuesday, in preparation for the holy day of Ash Wednesday. However, in practical terms, Shrove Tuesday was also seen as a last day of indulgence before the fasting and abstinence of Lent began. In other parts of the world, Shrove Tuesday falls within a period of carnivals and other festivities, which sprung up to give citizens the chance to enjoy themselves in advance of Lent.

Why is Shrove Tuesday also called ‘Pancake Day’?

As mentioned, within the Christian religion Lent is a period of penance and fasting. It became the custom, therefore, to use up all the rich foods in the house on this day to prepare the household for Lent. Eggs, milk, and sugar were at the top of the list – the perfect ingredients for making indulgent pancakes! Indeed, in Christian England, the practise of making pancakes became so popular that the Shrove Tuesday church bell (which was rung to call people to confession so they could be ‘shriven’) came to be known as the ‘Pancake Bell’.

Pancakes have been featured in English cookery books dating from the 15th century, but it is believed that their popularity may even pre-date Christianity. Pancake Day may in fact have links to a pagan holiday: it is thought that pagan worshippers made round pancakes to symbolise the sun, and feasted on them in recognition of the arrival of spring.

Pancake Day isn’t only popular in the UK, though – many countries around the world celebrate the day with their own customs. In France, for instance, the day is known as ‘Fat Tuesday’ (which is where the term ‘Mardi Gras’ – synonymous with carnivals around the globe – originates from). French people mark the day by flipping pancakes one-handed; with the other hand, they hold a coin, and make a wish at the same time. In the southern states of the United States, they make ‘king cake’ instead of pancakes: a ring of twisted cinnamon dough, decorated with sugar, and often with a small figurine hidden inside (which represents the baby Jesus). Finding the ‘baby’ within your slice of cake is said to bring good fortune and prosperity.

Celebrating Pancake Day

There are plenty of fun ways to bring the traditions of Shrove Tuesday to life for your family. If you’re in the mood for something active, why not try pancake racing (one of our oldest Shrove Tuesday activities, which has been taking place since 1445!)? The most famous race is held in Olney, though there’s no reason you can’t hold one in your garden. To run a ‘pancake race’ all you need do is run with a pancake in a pan, flipping it several times as you go (you have to catch the pancake to remain in the race!). The first to cross the finish line wins.

Alternatively, why not get the whole family together and make pancakes as a team? This is a great learning activity for parents and children: it gives you the chance to talk, read, and be creative together. When children cook, they improve their motor skills (particularly in terms of hand strength, which helps build a solid base for handwriting); learn to sort through – and classify – new information; learn about the different tools and words that can be used for measuring and working with ingredients; and develop their measuring skills (exploring different quantities, like time, space, and size).

We love this easy recipe from BBC Good Food, which utilises a simple batter featuring equal quantities of flour, milk and eggs. Making pancakes requires handling a hot (and sometimes heavy) pan, so it is recommended that parents handle the pan at all times to protect little hands from burns.


For the batter:

140g plain flour

4 eggs

200ml milk

50g melted butter

Oil for cooking

Your choice of toppings!


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