Pancakes and ashes
10th March 2014
You may have eaten pancakes last Tuesday, and on Wednesday seen people with dirty foreheads: the two are linked!
Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, the day when, traditionally, Christians worldwide went to be ‘shriven’ of their sins, i.e. confessed them. The word comes from the Old English of Germanic origin scrīfan (to impose as a penance) and is also related to the Dutch schrijven, Italian scrivere and German schreiben (to write), from the Latin scribere. Was your penance literally ‘written down’? If so, not many would have been able to read it…It’s more likely your sins were ‘written off’.
Our forebears then set about raiding the larder of all the goodies in it: Carne vale, Latin for ‘Farewell meat’, eating all they found, including the eggs and flour for the pancakes, and enjoying a knees-up – Carnival – before facing the gastronomic rigours of Lent. French speaking countries refer to this day as Mardi gras (greasy Tuesday) for the same reason. In certain parts of the world – Notting Hill for one – Carnival has become completely divorced from these origins.
The following day, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, a day when practising Christians all over the world go to church to be marked with an ashen cross on the forehead whilst the priest intones: “Remember Man that thou are dust and unto dust thou shalt return”. The ashes are made from Palms burnt after the previous year’s Palm Sunday, celebrating the day when Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by palm-waving crowds prior to his crucifixion.
Christians then undertake 40 days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. Interestingly, Sundays are excluded from these restrictions: feast, not fast!
Muslims, Jews and Hindus, among other religions, have similar periods of fasting: Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Purnima and Ekadasi, respectively.
The word Lent comes from Old English and was given its present meaning by the Church in the 12th century. But it derives from West Germanic langa-tinaz or long days… have you noticed the days ‘lengthening’?
The Mexican Lenten tradition is the Friday dish of Capirotada when all the cheese, butter, milk, sugar, tomatoes, onions, bananas, bread and raisins get mixed together and eaten in order to avoid meat!
In Poland there is a superstition that if you bake bread in the days between Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) and Good Friday, there will be a drought in the village for the rest of the year. Anyone infringing this observance gets thrown in the pond along with his or her pots!
The Filipinos have even been known to actually crucify young men in imitation of Jesus’ suffering….
Personally, I prefer the English tradition of the Olney pancake race!