Shrove Tuesday

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Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday, day before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). In the Latin countries it is the last day of the carnival, called by the French Mardi Gras.
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Shrove Tuesday

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
Where Celebrated: England, Europe, Scandinavia, United States, and by Christians all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Games, Pancakes, Shrovetide Bear
Related Holidays: Ash Wednesday, Carnival, Lent


Shrove Tuesday is a Christian holiday related to ASH WEDNESDAY and LENT. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The term Shrove Tuesday comes from the verb "to shrive" originally meant "to write." In medieval England, a priest would hear someone's confession and write down or prescribe an appropriate penance. After absolution, the person was said to have been "shriven." The last three days before ASH WEDNESDAY were referred to as "Shrovetide," traditionally a period of penitence. The final day, Shrove Tuesday, was the last opportunity for Christians to confess their sins before the start of LENT.

Also known as Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French) or Pancake Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday was also a time for merrymaking. Back in the days when LENT required wearing dark clothing, eating meals without meat, and banning all forms of pleasure and entertainment for forty days, it was customary for people to have a good time on the day before these restrictions went into effect. Because they had to use up all the fat, eggs, and butter in the house, housewives used these ingredients to make doughnuts, PANCAKES , and other rich foods. In England, Shrove Monday was sometimes referred to as Collop Monday for the same reason-a collop being a slice of meat. In addition to eating more than usual, people would play GAMES and hold costume parades. The Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans is typical of the masquerades and dancing in the streets that still take place in many countries on this day.



It was customary to hold seasonal games and contests on Shrove Tuesday in England and elsewhere in Europe. Such activities may originally have been designed to promote fertility and conquer the forces of evil at the beginning of spring. In England, it was customary for parishes to divide themselves into two opposing groups and engage in "rough and tumbles" or a game of football. The earliest recorded game of Shrove Tuesday football took place at Chester in 1533. By the eigtheenth century, Shrovetide games had become considerably more brutal, and often involved cockfighting or hen-thrashing. Even the football games had a tendency to get out of hand, resulting in broken legs and other injuries. As many as a thousand or more people would congregate at these events, and many would end up dunking each other in the nearest river. Shop windows were often shattered by tugs-of-war going on in the streets.

Although Shrovetide games were a widespread form of pre-Lenten celebration, they eventually died out in most areas because they were too dangerous and caused too much damage. They survived in a few small towns, however, up until the present century.


Shrove Tuesday is believed to be a survival of the ancient Roman Fornacalia, or Feast of Ovens, which took place around February 17. A movable feast that lasted a week, it involved making an offering of far, a flour made from the oldest kind of Italian wheat, which was then roasted in the oven and crushed in a primitive mill and served in the form of cakes.

Centuries later, Shrove Tuesday became associated with frying pancakes, which gave housewives an opportunity to use up their leftover lard before the Lenten fast. Before the Reformation, eating anything made with fats or butter was strictly forbidden during Lent, and making pancakes (called bannocks in Scotland), doughnuts, or sweet buns was a form of thrift as well as self-indulgence. The typical menu served on this day in many European countries is still pancakes with sausages, bacon, or meat scraps.

Because so many pancakes were made on this day, they also featured prominently in the GAMES that were played. The most famous is the Pancake Race held since 1445 in Olney, England. The participants must wear a skirt, an apron, and a headscarf and flip their pancakes in the air three times as they run the 415-yard course.

Shrovetide Bear

In Western Europe, especially in rural areas, it was traditional at one time to dramatize the "death" of CARNIVAL on Shrove Tuesday by condemning to death a scarecrow or strawman dressed in an old pair of trousers and known as the Shrovetide Bear or Fastnachtsbär. The effigy would often be beheaded, laid in a coffin, and buried in the churchyard on ASH WEDNESDAY. Sometimes it would be hanged, burned, drowned, or thrown in the village dump. In some areas, it was believed that if the last woman to marry jumped over the fire in which the Shrovetide Bear was burned, it would make her fertile.

In Bohemia in the eastern Czech Republic, a person in a mask or disguise, known as the "Oats Goat," is led from house to house on Shrove Tuesday. He dances with the women and, in return, receives food, money, and drink. Like the Shrovetide Bear, the Oats Goat is dressed in straw and wears horns on his head. He is also associated with fertility, because at one time it was believed that dancing with him ensured the growth of crops. Women would pluck bits of straw from him and put them in their hens' nests to guarantee a good supply of eggs.


Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hole, Christina. English Custom & Usage. 1941. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. James, E.O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Long, George. The Folklore Calendar. 1930. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Metford, J.C.J. The Christian Year. New York: Crossroad, 1991. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Shrove Tuesday

Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
There are a number of names in the West for the last day before the long fast of Lent. The French call it Mardi Gras (meaning "Fat Tuesday"), because it was traditionally a time to use up all the milk, butter, and eggs left in the kitchen. These ingredients often went into pancakes, which is why the English call it Pancake Day and still celebrate it with games and races that involve tossing pancakes in the air.
Other names include Shuttlecock (or Football ) Day, after sports associated with this day; Doughnut Day ; Bannock (or Bannocky ) Day (a bannock being the Scottish equivalent of a pancake), and Fastingong (meaning "approaching a time of fast"). The name "Shrove Tuesday" is derived from the Christian custom of confessing sins and being "shriven" (i.e., absolved) just before Lent.
In northern Sweden, people eat a meat stew. In the south, they eat Shrove Tuesday buns called semlor, made with cardamom, filled with almond paste, and topped with whipped cream.
No matter what its name, the day before Ash Wednesday has long been a time for excessive eating and merrymaking. The Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans is typical of the masquerades and dancing in the streets that take place in many countries on this day as people prepare for the long Lenten fast.
See also Carnival; Cheese Sunday; Cheese Week; Fasching; Fastens-een
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 128
EncyEaster-2002, p. 561
OxYear-1999, p. 606

Celebrated in: Estonia, Finland, Netherlands

Shrove Tuesday (Bohemia)
Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
In the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, a mummer known as the "Oats Goat" traditionally is led from house to house on Shrove Tuesday. He dances with the women of the house, and in return they feed him and give him money. Like the Fastnachtsbär (or Shrovetide Bear) in parts of Germany, the Oats Goat is dressed in straw and wears horns on his head. He is associated with fertility; at one time it was widely believed that dancing with the Fastnachtsbär ensured the growth of crops.
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 370, 807

Shrove Tuesday (Estonia)
Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
Schools are closed in Estonia on the last day before Lent, known as Vastla Päev, and children often spend the entire day sledding. At night, their mothers serve a traditional Shrove Tuesday soup, which is made from pigs' feet boiled with dried peas or lima beans. After dinner, the children play with the vuriluu kont, or the bones left over from the pigs' feet soup. A hole is drilled in each bone and a doubled rope is inserted through the hole. When the contrivance is manipulated in a certain way it causes a terrific rattle, which delights the children and is a traditional way to end the day's celebration.
BkFest-1937, p. 102

Celebrated in: Estonia

Shrove Tuesday (Finland)
Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
Children in Finland often spend Shrove Tuesday, a school holiday, sledding and enjoying other outdoor sports. According to an old folk saying, the better the coasting and the longer the hills one rides on Laskiaispäivä, the more bountiful the coming harvest will be. A typical Finnish meal on this day would include pea soup and blini, or rich pancakes, served with caviar and smetana, a kind of sour milk. A typical dessert consists of wheat buns filled with almond paste, placed in deep dishes, and eaten with hot milk.
There are many folk beliefs surrounding Shrove Tuesday. At one time, women would not spin on this day, believing that if they did, no flax would grow the following summer. Men refrained from planing wood, the common wisdom being that if farm animals walked on the chips made by the planes, their feet would become swollen and sore.
BkFest-1937, p. 111

Celebrated in: Finland

Shrove Tuesday (Netherlands)
Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
The day preceding the Lenten fast is known as Vastenavond (Fast Eve) in the Netherlands, where it is a time for feasting and merrymaking. In the provinces of Limburg and Brabant, it is customary to eat pancakes and oliebollen, or rich fried cakes with currants, raisins, and apples added. Brabant specializes in worstebrood, a special kind of bread that appears ordinary on the outside but is filled with spiced sausage meat.
In the southern part of the country, the Carnival season lasts for three days, beginning on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. In other areas, the celebration is confined to one day. The farmers of Schouwen-en-Duiveland, on the island of Zeeland, still observe the old Vastenavond custom of gathering at the village green with their horses in the afternoon. The animals are carefully groomed and decorated with paper roses. The men ride their horses down to the beach, making sure the animals get their feet wet. The leader of the procession toots on a horn. It is possible that this custom originated in an ancient spring purification rite, when blowing horns was believed to drive away evil spirits and getting wet was a symbolic act of cleansing.
BkFest-1937, p. 241
FestWestEur-1958, p. 124
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 102

Celebrated in: Netherlands

Shrove Tuesday (Pennsylvania Dutch)
Between February 3 and March 9; day before Ash Wednesday
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, work is taboo on Shrove Tuesday, just as it is on other religious holidays. There is an old superstition that if a woman sews on Shrove Tuesday, she will prevent her hens from laying their eggs. Some believe that sewing on this day means that the house will be visited by snakes during the spring and summer.
A special kind of cake or doughnut known as a fasnacht is eaten on this day. Rectangular with a slit down the middle, it is often soaked with molasses and then dunked in saffron tea. Sometimes the fasnachts were crumbled and fed to the chickens in the belief that it would prevent the hawks from snatching the chicks in the spring. Another old custom associated with Shrove Tuesday is "barring out," or locking the teacher out of the local school. In many areas, Christmas is barring-out day.
EncyChristmas-2000, p. 35
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 100
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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