It’s Shrove Tuesday today – or Pancake Day, as it tends to be known nowadays, or Fastern’s E’en, or “Jiffy Lemon Day” as my father once sarcastically referred to it – and I hope you’ve enjoyed your pancakes, whatever you’ve had with them (personally I reckon you can’t beat good old lemon and sugar, but I’m a purist).
Actually this year I’ve gone pancake-less, and had to make do with a doughnut, though this is not inappropriate, as in Baldock in Hertfordshire they cook doughnuts in hog’s lard, and call it Doughnut Day.
Traditionally, of course, cooks would use up their fat and butter before the Lenten fast, though pancakes have their origin in pre-Christian times, when wheaten cakes were eaten to mark the early spring.
In Scotland, they call it Brose Day or Bannock Tuesday, and eat brose (a kind of broth), cooking their bannocks (a sort of oatmeal cake) in the evening. The last bannock to be cooked is the so-called “dreaming-bannock”, which should be made in silence and then divided among the assembled company. If your piece contains a ring or other object it may bring you luck, or divine your future.
Shrove Tuesday also has a more anarchic side – the custom of Shroving used to involve (and in some places may still do so) gangs of children travelling around the parish threatening to throw stones or broken crockery at people’s doors unless they gave them pancakes. And in many places in Britain, Shrovetide football is still enthusiastically practised – it involves two large teams from different parts of a town or village trying to get their ball through the other side’s goal (the goals are sometimes miles apart), and there are virtually no rules other than not being allowed to kill people. For hours on end the players fight their way through the town (local shops often board up their windows) until one or other side is victorious. The folklorist Christina Hole memorably describes a similar game that once took place in Llanwennog in Wales:
Not a few of the players were injured by kicks on the shins, and sometimes two of them would break off during the game to indulge in a private bout of fisticuffs but the fierce zest for victory never failed.
Here’s a picture of a game being played in Ashbourne in Derbyshire:
So enjoy the rest of Shrovetide, before the long days of Lent, and remember:
Nicka, nicka, nan,
Give me some pancake, and I’ll be gone;
But if you give me none,
I’ll throw a great stone,
And down your door shall come!