Pancake Day: Lent
Shrove Tuesday is on 5 March 2019
by Jude Scrutton (revised, originally published in 2011)
Suitable for Key Stage 3
To consider the origin and symbolism of some of the customs associated with Lent.
Preparation and materials
- You will need to tell the story of the temptation of Jesus. You could do this by arranging for a student to read the Bible passage Matthew 4.1–11, or by showing a video that retells the story.
If you decide to use the latter method, you will need to have available the YouTube video ‘Temptation of Jesus’ and the means to show it during the assembly. It is 2.32 minutes long and is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLEAJCDp5js
- Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day, is on 5 March 2019. It is part of the traditional Christian calendar – so what’s it got to do with pancakes? This assembly will explore the meaning behind Shrove Tuesday, as well as explaining the custom of pancake-eating that has grown up around it. Shrove Tuesday is the last day before the beginning of Lent. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday.
- Lent is the 40-day period that builds up to Easter, which remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus. Lent is a time of reflection and sacrifice for Christians, during which they especially recall the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. Christians believe that Jesus was tempted by the devil three times during this time.
- Read, or have a student read, the Bible passage Matthew 4.1–11. Alternatively, show the YouTube video ‘Temptation of Jesus’.
- Ask the students why they think that people give up things for Lent.
Listen to a range of responses.
Christians often give up something for the period of Lent to remember Jesus’ long fast and help them to identify with his difficulties in the wilderness. Other people sometimes take on this custom, too, as a way of giving up something they don’t think is good for them, or as an exercise in self-discipline.
- Traditionally, the things that the Church encouraged people to give up during Lent were meat, fish, fats, eggs and milky foods. This is why it became customary for people to make pancakes to use up their fats and eggs before Lent started. There are recipes for Shrove Tuesday pancakes dating back to a cookbook from 1439. The tradition of tossing pancakes is an old one, too: ‘And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne’ (Pasquil Palin, 1619).
- Mardi Gras festivals around the world are also associated with Shrove Tuesday. ‘Mardi gras’ literally means ‘fat Tuesday’. The famous Mardi Gras festivals of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans stem from the same preparation for Lent: getting rid of forbidden foods.
- Shrove Tuesday is not just about using up food, though. It has a special significance of its own. Catholics traditionally go to confession on this day, to admit their sins to the priest and be absolved (forgiven) for the things that they have done wrong. This process of confession and absolution used to be called ‘shriving’, hence Shrove Tuesday.
Again, this is an old tradition. Over 1,000 years ago, a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes: ‘In the week before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.’
This was done in order to start Lent with a pure soul. Confessing the bad things that we have done has been, and still is, a crucial part of Christianity. In Catholic churches, Christians confess to priests, who forgive them on behalf of God, whom they represent. In Protestant churches, Christians confess directly to God through prayer, receiving forgiveness and freedom from a guilty conscience. Many non-religious people would agree that confessing to someone else about the things for which they feel guilty helps to lessen their guilt. It can often be unhealthy to bottle things up, so it can be better to get it off our chests.
Time for reflection
Shrove Tuesday is about saying sorry for the bad things that we’ve done. It’s about wiping the slate clean before a period of self-sacrifice and reflection for Christians. It is a time of contemplation, before the next big celebration at Easter time. The tradition of giving Easter eggs comes from the fact that people would have given up eggs during Lent, and would finally be allowed them again at Easter. Maybe eating pancakes this year could remind us to pause and think about our lives.
Thank you for reminding us that we need to pause and think about our lives.
Please help us to be willing to admit our faults.
Please help us to be willing to say sorry.
Please help us to be people who forgive.
May we use this time of Lent to help others and work for the good of the world.