What Is Shrove Tuesday and Should Christians Celebrate Pancake Tuesday?
- Hope Bolinger SEO Editor
- 2021 4 Feb
You’ve likely heard of the term “Mardi Gras” or “Fat Tuesday.” This day always occurs right before the holiday Ash Wednesday. On Mardi Gras, people essentially, for lack of better terms, live it up. Because Ash Wednesday commences the Lenten diet, which often involves giving up sweets, or in more traditional terms, meat during certain days of Lent, people splurge on sweets and other goodies on Mardi Gras. But what is Shrove Tuesday? Is it simply another name for Fat Tuesday?
Some churches will hold a Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner (or brunch). But why do we eat pancakes? And can we call this a legitimate church holiday? Let’s dive in.
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What Is Shrove Tuesday or ‘Pancake Tuesday’?
As we know from past articles on Lent, Lent didn’t exist since the beginning of the church. For more details on when the holiday first kicked off, check out this article here. Since Shrove Tuesday precedes the Lenten calendar by one day, we can assume it did not exist in the Early Church either.
Since the Early Church also seemed to emphasize not engaging in worldly pleasures or excess, it doesn’t exactly seem on brand either (Acts 5).
So how did this holiday come about? Was this the church’s solution to the Mardi Gras celebrations that took place around them?
According to Historic UK, Shrove Tuesday dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, and perhaps even further. “Anglo-Saxon Christians went to confession and were “shriven” (absolved from their sins). A bell would be rung to call people to confession. This came to be called the “Pancake Bell” and is still rung today.” Shriven means “confession or penitence.”
A confession of sins used to occur right before people would indulge in a last-ditch effort to get fats and sweets before Ash Wednesday.
We don’t really have any records that pre-date the Anglo-Saxon period in terms of Shrove Tuesday, but many traditions developed afterward. Including various games that would be played in the 1100s known as Shrovetide (probably a form of soccer).
More traditional branches of Christianity such as Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will often hold a Shrove Tuesday dinner prior to Ash Wednesday. But other denominations may take part in some form of a celebration.
Why Do We Eat Pancakes on This Day?
English pancakes, at least in the Anglo-Saxon period, had a different look and taste altogether. People would partake in a lemon-syrup-infused treat prior to Ash Wednesday. According to Historic UK, each component of the pancake represented something different. The egg (creation), flour (staff of life), salt (wholesomeness, aka salt of the earth), milk (purity).
But in reality, although they could create symbols for each of these ingredients, people probably ate pancakes for more of a practical purpose. They contained eggs, sugar, and fat, items they would not consume for the duration of Lent. It’s a somewhat similar idea to someone engorging themselves on food right before a long fast.
According to History Extra, “The earliest known English (pancake) recipe dates from the 15th century, although pancakes had been eaten in other countries for centuries before that. In the French-speaking world, the day is known as ‘Mardi Gras’ or ‘Fat Tuesday’.”
In this case, it appears Mardi Gras stemmed from Shrove Tuesday, rather than the other way around. After all, Mardi Gras’ origins appear to form long after the Anglo-Saxon period.
However, this Crosswalk article argues it may have pre-dated Shrove Tuesday, “The origins of Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras first began thousands of years ago as part of uninhibited pagan festivals for fertility and spring, filled with indulgences in everything. Rome’s embrace of Christianity meant the interest of incorporating Fat Tuesday into Christianity becoming a goal; thus, Fat Tuesday and all its unrestricted immorality were welcomed as part of preparing for Ash Wednesday and fasting for Lent. The event quickly spread through Europe like wildfire, and then began its journey over to the Americas. Mardi Gras arrived in the United States as a small festival marking French explorers Sieur de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d’lberville’s landing on what is now New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3, 1699.”
In either case, we cannot deny that the two holidays share a similar value: indulging.
Is There a Biblical Basis for Shrove Tuesday?
There doesn’t appear to be much of a biblical basis for Shrove Tuesday. The Bible does talk a great deal about confessing one’s sins, whether in private or corporately.
1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Proverbs 28:13: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
Acts 19:18: “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.”
But obviously nowhere in Scripture does it say, “Eat pancakes 47 days before Resurrection Sunday.”
We do see many instances of holidays in the Jewish calendar where people would celebrate with a harvest. Sukkot, for instance, represents a prime example of this. But we do need to make a distinction between celebrating the good harvest the Lord has given for a year and over-indulging in gluttony.
The Bible talks harshly against the sin of gluttony.
Philippians 3:19: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Proverbs 23:20-21: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”
1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
Gluttony shows a lack of stewardship for the wonderful gifts God has given us. For a great parable on taking God’s gifts for granted, check out the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12.
Although this holiday seems to have original good intentions with the confession of sins and partaking in a meal with fellow believers, has it strayed too far from any biblical merit at all?
Should Christians Celebrate This Holiday?
We cannot deny that this holiday has some similarities to Mardi Gras. Churches can provide a great alternative to the Mardi Gras celebrations, similar to what some churches do for Halloween (Trunk or Treat, or a Reformation Day celebration).
Obviously eating pancakes is not a sin in itself, and churches can look back to the origins of the holiday and incorporate a confession time (whether in prayer or with an accountability partner) to remind us about the upcoming Lent season of reflection.
In short, there’s not a yes or no answer to this. A Shrove Tuesday dinner can invite members of the community to engage in something more wholesome rather than the raucous celebrations we may see take place during Mardi Gras or Carnival.
Still, we do need to exercise intentionality. This holiday should not be about stuffing our faces with pancakes so we can get our last treats in before the Lent fast. That borders, if not infringes, upon gluttony and irresponsibility.
But if we do focus on the positive aspects of the holiday such as fellowship, confession, and gratitude for the gifts God has given us, we could provide a good alternative to Fat Tuesday.
Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, literary agent at C.Y.L.E., and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in October of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.