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02/07/2005 Archived Entry: "Shrove Tuesday"
The period of Lent begins on 9 February - Ash Wednesday. Lent is, or was, a time of repentance for one's sins and a time of self denial. One of the luxuries one denied onself was rich food. Instead of exquisite meals of choice dishes, penance observers would eat frugally and make do with scraps of the very plainest kind. But before fasting, they made merry! The Monday before Ash Wednesday was known as Collop Monday and, in expectation of the lean times to come, a special feast of ‘collops' was prepared. Collops were deliciously thick rashers of the best ham or other meat eaten with fried eggs, mushrooms, black puddings, fried bread and anything else that took your fancy. It was the last truly big feast before Lent during which all the good things were eaten up.
The following day was Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday. That's when you made pancakes and ate them with all the sweet and yummy things from the larder which wouldn't keep until the end of the Lenten period. As it was forbidden by the church to eat eggs during Lent, they all went into the pancake batter. Another final feast before the big fast!
However, before sitting down to eat the pancakes, religious folk went to church to confess their sins and then be ‘shriven'. Shriven meant they received absolution from the priest. In this way they were shrove, hence Shrove Tuesday. Church bells would ring to announce the feast of pancakes and the merrymaking would begin. In some areas the pancake bell still rings to announce the beginning of pancake races, football games and other activities. The people of Olney in Buckinghamshire claim that their pancake race is over 500 years old. The story goes that a lady was so engrossed in her pancake making that when she heard the shriving bell, she ran to church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan.
Pancake bells are still rung and pancake races are held in many places in England. Scarborough hosts a Shrove Tuesday skipping race and London's Westminster School observes the tossing of pancakes with great solemnity. The cook tosses a massive pancake over a 16 foot high bar which separates the upper and lower schools and the boys scramble for it. The one who grabs the largest piece gets a prize.
Several towns and villages hold special ball games on Shrove Tuesday and one rather gory explanation is that the tradition has come down from the time when a beast was ritually slaughtered and its head kicked down the street. Rather less gruesome are the present-day Shrovetide football matches held in Warwickshire, where the ball is filled with water and at Poole in Dorset a ball is kicked along the road from one point to another in order to maintain an ancient right of way.