Historically, before beginning their Lenten Fast, Roman Catholics, and later Anglicans, and more recently Episcopalians, have developed the traditions since the Middle Ages of eating pancakes and celebrating Mardi Gas on Shrove Tuesday. In Olney, England, since the year 1445, this has included a Pancake Race. This year, Shrove Tuesday was Feb. 12.
Some might ask, "What do you mean? What's a Lenten Fast? What's a Pancake Race? I thought Mardi Gras was a Carnival in New Orleans. And would someone please tell me what the word 'Shrove' means?"
Lent and fasting
For Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians, the penitential season of Lent is the period of 40 weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday. It is a season of the church year commemorating the 40 days Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness before He began His public ministry. Six Sundays are within the season with the last, Palm or Passion Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Thursday, commemorating "The Last Supper," begins the three days before Easter, or Resurrection Day and includes Good Friday, the day when Jesus was crucified.
The season of Lent calls Christians to imitate the 40 days of prayer and fasting of Jesus. Lenten fasting was primarily started in the Middle Ages,and required abstaining from eating all animal products, except fish, during the 40 days. Sundays were not included in the fasting. Later, fast days included Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent.
The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union Street, in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 to 11 a.m., or by appointment. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457, and the email mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, Mardi Gras
The word "carnival" comes from a Latin word meaning "farewell to meat," and the practice of celebrating carnival probably began during the Middle Ages when the Sunday a week before the beginning of Lent was called "farewell-to-meat" Sunday. The official day of "farewell" is Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday," because it was the day for all animal fats to be used up before the Lenten fast. It is also known as Shrove Tuesday from the old church expression, "to shrive," or hear confessions, before beginning penance in the form of the Lenten fast to prepare for Easter.
The English custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was suggested by the need of using up eggs, dairy and fats which were prohibited foods during the 40 days of Lent. This same prohibition is also mainly responsible for the association of eggs for Easter. So, stores of dairy products are used up in the pancake mix on Shrove Tuesday, and eggs are eaten on Easter morn.
Olney England and the origin of the "Olney Pancake Race"
Olney's famous race is run every Shrove Tuesday by women who have lived in town for more than six months. It dates back to 1445 and is believed to have begun with a townswoman late for the Shriving service at the Olney parish church. So the story goes, on hearing the church bells ring out for the service, the townswoman fled her house fearful of being late. She ran the distance down High Street to make it to the parish church wearing her apron, carrying her skillet with a pancake and wearing a scarf,as head-covering was required of women in church.
Now, the event is commemorated in the Olney Pancake Race. The Olney women compete in traditional apron, scarf or cap and holding a frying pan with a real pancake. They must toss their pancake once at the start and once at the finish by the church - Olney's St. Peter and St. Paul Church. When the pancake race is over, runners, officials, townspeople and visitors enter the church for the Shriving service. The frying pans are placed around the font, Shrove Tuesday Hymns are sung, and during the service some official prizes are presented. Later in the day there is another prize-giving celebration.
Originally, the prize for the winner was a kiss from the Sexton who then rang the bell, signaling the start of the Shriving service. In recent years, runners are encouraged to obtain sponsorship for various charities. In addition to a prize for the fastest runner, there is a prize for the lady who raises the most for charity. Also there is an Olney Pancake Race Raffle with prizes, and all profits from the raffle go to the maintenance of the church.
Pancake Race links with the United States
Since the 1950s, Liberal, a town in the U.S., has established a friendly competition with Olney by running the same distance on the same day. An official website - www.OlneyOnline.com - provides history, information and news about the races, and other events.
Perhaps, this year or in future years, an annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Westfield, N.Y., may be featured beside Olney and Liberal.