It’s Shrovetide – in secular terms, the six days preceding Lent. In this period so far we’ve had Fat Thursday, Kissing Friday and today – Egg Saturday. Still to come we have Quinquagesima Sunday (tomorrow), Collop Monday and Shrove Tuesday (better known as Pancake Tuesday).
Religiously, Shrovetide is really only the three days preceding Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) but the secular celebrations before this Christian fast of forty days have always been stretched to round about the week preceding Lent because the original Fast was only of thirty-six days duration and didn’t start until the Monday after the First Sunday of Lent which was often called Quadragesima Sunday. This meant that Shrovetide extended beyond Ash Wednesday right up to the First Sunday in Lent which was the original Shrove Sunday and when the start of the Fast was thrown back to Ash Wednesday it was natural that the revels and games which had always preceded it should be pushed back by the requisite number of days as well.
For those of you who are trying to count forty days backwards from Easter to determine Ash Wednesday please remember that the forty days of Lent (or the earlier form of Lent of thirty-six days I referred to in the second paragraph) do not include Sundays – unless, that is, you count backwards from Easter to tomorrow (Quinquagesima Sunday) when you have to count the Sundays in (including Easter Sunday – April 24th. this year – and Quinquagesimae itself) to make the fifty days before Easter that Quinquagesima Sunday could be. This is because the name Quinquagesima originates from Latin quinquagesimus meaning ‘fiftieth’1. Some people just call Quinquagesima Sunday simply ‘Quinquagesimae’ and sometimes simple ‘Shrove Sunday’ and one will still hear people refer to it as ‘Estomihi’ which is derived from the Introit2 for that Sunday which contains Psalm 31 that begins Esto mihi in Deum protectorem, et in locum refugii, ut salvum me facias... (In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed : deliver me in thy righteousness...). The reason for not including Sundays when counting the Days of Abstinence in Lent is because every Sunday recalls the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus and they can be thought of as ‘little Easters’ and therefore not treated as Days of Penance or Abstinence3.
Some of you may remember from some of my previous posts (see here, and see here, and see here) that children are often involved in our festivals and feasts in ways that actively promote the transference of gewgaws, pennies and luxury foodstufs from the adults store cupboards and pockets to them. Shrovetide used to be no exception but nowadays the custom of children ‘shroving’ seems to have died out completely in England as, regrettably, has the same sort of custom called ‘souling’ that the children used to indulge in on All Souls’ Day on November the third which has become all mixed up with guising (trick-and-treating).
However, I still remember the shroving rhyme taught to me by my great-grandmother when I was a lad of about three or four years of age:
Shrovetide is nigh at hand,
And I am come a-shroving;
Pray, Dame, a small thing,
An apple or a dumpling,
Or a piece of truckle4 cheese
All of your own making,
Or a piece of pancake, please.
The last line was supposed to be shouted out and the ‘please’ was supposed to be very loud indeed.
All sorts of games, especially ball, hoop and bat type games were once traditional at Shrovetide all over England. One or two games still survive such as that at Alnwick where the players and officials will march in procession behind the Duke of Northumberland’s Piper to the Pastures for the match. The first team to score two hales (goals) will be declared the winner. This sort of a game goes back at least to medieval times when the poorer people entertained themselves with various games, one of which would be kicking something around – possibly an inflated pig’s bladder or some such organ from a dead animal. This eventually developed into primitive football. Shrovetide football was played in almost every town and village across Britain at one time, mostly in the streets. Alnwick was no different and the game was started by the Duke of Northumberland’s porter throwing a ball over the castle wall to the waiting hundreds.
Then there is the granddaddy of them all, of course: The Royal Shrovetide Football played with thousands of people and a hand painted, cork filled ball between goalposts that are three miles apart in Ashbourne in Derbyshire for eight hours on Shrove Tuesday and another eight hours on Ash Wednesday. This particular game dates back to at least AD1349 (Edward III is recorded as trying to ban it) and is played by just two teams – those who live north of the River Henmore and those who live south of it.
Shrovetide is the time of confession, absolution and penance. The word ‘shrove’ is the past participle of the verb to ‘shrive’ and means to confess, receive absolution and do penance. It is the season of the year when Christians are expected to take a good, hard, long look at themselves and identify their shortcomings and their wrongdoings and correct both. Shrovetide is also a time for secular merriment before the more sombre season of Lent the forty days of which commemorate the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the deserts and the forty days that our Lord Jesus fasted in the desert.
Fat Thursday, of course, traditionally starts Shrovetide. It’s traditionally a day for feasting and general partying. One feasts copiously on all the things that are traditionally abstained from during the Lenten days – meat, sugar, fat, eggs, honey, biscuits (cookies), cakes, preserves and so forth – and this uses them up and prevents them going to waste. It’s also known as Bloody Thursday because in some parts of England it’s traditional to make and consume black puddings on this day. In many parts of the northeast of England it’s known as Fruttace (Fritter) Thursday because the custom was to eat fritters made from eggs, flour, apples and various dried fruits and spices. In some places Ash Wednesday is also known as Fruttace Wednesday for the same reason.
Kissing Friday comes next and it got its name because boys were allowed to give girls a kiss without fear of reprisals. In and around Leicestershire and in one or two other places this day was known as Nippy Hug Day because a man was allowed to request a kiss from the woman of his choice and if he was denied then he was allowed to louse (that is ‘to pinch like a louse’s bite’) the lady’s posterior. I understand that these customs have died out and Kissing Friday is now simply the day on which you salute your own partner warmly and often.
Egg Saturday (today) – Festum Ovorum – is traditionally the day in Shrovetide when as many as possible of the preserved eggs in one’s larder are used up and Pasch (pronounced ‘pask’) Eggs are given as gifts. Pasch Eggs ordinary eggs (preserved or fresh) the shells of which have been coloured and decorated. I understand that the tradition of giving Pasch Eggs still persists in Oxford though I haven’t been able to corroborate that. The giving of Pasch Eggs seems to have died out elsewhere in England but the eating of egg-based dishes on this day still goes on.
Quinquagesima Sunday (Shrove Sunday) I’ve already mentioned. It’s the most popular day for formal confession and for asking for forgiveness from those you have wronged. It’s also a fire festival of a sort – one should burn all the rubbish from one’s home in the evening of Shrove Sunday and this marks the start of spring-cleaning. Children used to be entertained by pinning sweet things to red cord suspended from the ceiling and they had to take a bite from the goodies without using their hands. Great fun!
Collop Monday, also known as Shrove Monday, is sometimes called Rose Monday, Merry Monday or Hall Monday and I’m afraid that I don’t know why. It’s also the second last day of Carnival and is sometimes called ‘Lundi Gras’. In England it’s Collop Monday and on that day we eat collops (pieces) of bacon with more eggs. It is said that the bacon provides the fat for the pancakes on the following day but that is not strictly true for it all depends on how fatty the bacon is to begin with and whether or not one is making savoury pancakes. In Cornwall this day is Peasen Monday because Pea Soup is served with the collops of bacon. Traditionally, in the evening children knocked on doors and ran away before anyone opened them (the Nick Nack game), but in Cornwall this is Nicka-nan Night when anything not securely sequestered will be moved or removed by prowling children. Also in Cornwall a Jack O’Lent straw figure used to be burnt on a bonfire. In Cornwall Cornish Hurling is very popular at Shrovetide and the famous 'Hurling of the silver ball' at St Columb Major still occurs during the run up to Lent.
Shrove Tuesday is the one Shrovetide Day to have many of its customs and traditions survive almost intact. It’s Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnival. In England, as part of community celebrations, many towns used to hold Mob football games some of which dated back to at least twelfth century. The practice mostly died out in the nineteenth century, after the passing of the Highway Act 1835 which banned playing football on public highways. A number of towns have maintained the tradition, including Alnwick in Northumberland as I mentioned earlier, Ashbourne in Derbyshire (called the Royal Shrovetide Football Match) which I also mentioned earlier, Atherstone (called the Ball Game) in Warwickshire, Sedgefield (called the Ball Game) in County Durham, and St Columb Major (called Hurling the Silver Ball) in Cornwall which, gain, I mentioned earlier.
Shrove Tuesday was once known as a 'half-holiday' in England. It started at 11:00am with the signalling of a church bell.On Pancake Day, pancake races are held in villages and towns across the United Kingdom. The tradition is said to have originated when a housewife from Olney was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She hurried out of her house to Church while she was still carrying her frying pan with a pancake in it. Pancake races are a common tradition in England even today. A pancake race is one where the contestants run through the streets whilst tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan without breaking stride.
The tradition of pancake racing had started long ago. The most famous pancake race, at Olney in Buckinghamshire, has been held since 1445. A very similar race is held in North Somercotes in Lincolnshire.
I’m informed that Scarborough in North Yorkshire used to celebrate by closing off the foreshore road to all traffic, closing schools early, and inviting all residents to skip in the road. I don’t know if this tradition is still maintained. Traditionally, long ropes were used from the fishing ships in the nearby harbour. The Town Crier used to ring in the day with the pancake bell, situated on the corner of Westborough (Main Street) and Huntress Row.
The children of the small village of Whitechapel, Lancashire still keep alive a tradition of visiting local households and asking "please a pancake", to be rewarded with oranges or sweets. It is thought the tradition arose when farm workers visited the wealthier farm and manor owners to ask for pancakes or pancake fillings but this reminds me very much of the shroving rhyme my great-grandmother taught me.
Shrove Tuesday is the final day before Lent and that is when all the minor leftovers are finally eaten – eggs, butter, fat and so forth. Pancakes were made from those ingredients with the first three made being set aside with the quote: “One for St. Peter, one for St. Paul and one for Him that made us all” and traditionally those first pancakes were made over a fire on which was burning the dried remains of the Christmastide Holly decorations. In parts of Hertfordshire and other places in England this day used to be known as Doughnut Day because they made those comestibles rather than pancakes, but pancakes seem to have taken over everywhere now.
One other little English custom that seems to have died out completely is the Holly Boy and the Ivy Girl. In country villages, especially in Kent, it used to be traditional for the boys to make a model of a man from Holly and the girls to make a model maiden from Ivy. They then exchanged the figures and burnt them on separate bonfires at opposite ends of the village. Why? I have no idea!
Cockfighting was always a popular sport on Shrove Tuesday until it was made illegal. Cock-shying – throwing stones at cocks – was also popular and was also made illegal though the term ‘cockshy’ is still in the language but the ‘cock’ these days is simply an inanimate object as a target and a ‘cockshy’ is a throw at it. Thrashing the Hen was also popular and consisted of a man with a hen tied to his back and hung about with horse bells running around an enclosed space trying to avoid lots of other blindfolded people wielding sticks who were intent on killing, and thereby gaining, the hen.5
That’s about the sum of it for Shrovetide. The day after is Ash Wednesday but that’s another story. Shrovetide is not just about fun, feasting and frolics with football and fowl, it’s also about putting things right and atoning through abstinence in Lent.
The Christian Fast of Lent is a ritual fast. It’s not the stupidity of Ramadan with denial of all food and drink through certain hours – a practice that is medically bad for a human and stupid in itself. It is not about ostentatious and rather silly fasting in the Islamic style but about abstaining from worldly pleasures and examining one’s conscience and state of being. It’s about plain and abstemious eating and symbolic denial by giving up for the duration something one enjoys; and that is why Shrovetide became such a festivity – it was a way of using up things that might otherwise tempt a body during Lent. It’s more than just ending Carnival on high note, it’s also about learning and demonstrating that one knows that life is about more than the simple pleasures of Carnival – it’s also about being a rounded and whole human being in touch with God and one’s own spirituality.
1. Interestingly, the preceding Sundays to Quinquagesima Sunday are, in order and working backwards, Sexagesima Sunday, which, despite its name, is not exactly sixty days before Easter, and Septuagesima Sunday, which, according to Amalarius of Metz could be exactly seventy days before the end of Easter if one counted the nine weeks to Easter plus Easter Week (the week after Easter Sunday, not to confused with Holy Week which is the week before Easter Sunday) and that that period would symbolise the seventy year long Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. In practice, however, the ‘gesimas’ are no longer officially used by the Church and these Sundays, so romantically named to modern ears, are just part of Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time – tempus per annum – for the Church consists of two periods: the one following Epiphany (the feast or the season) and the other following Pentecost, neither of which fall under the ‘strong seasons’ of Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter. The weeks in ordinary time are numbered, although several Sundays are named for the feast they commemorate, such as Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost) and the Feast of Christ the King (the last Sunday in Ordinary Time – that is to say the Sunday immediately preceding the start of Advent), and for American Catholics, the Feast of Corpus Christi (the second Sunday after Pentecost).
2. An ‘Introit’ (from the Latin ‘introitus’ meaning ‘entrance’) is the opening part of the celebration of Mass and consists of the entrance antiphon (a responsory sung between choir and congregation), a Psalm (as laid down for the day), and the Gloria Patri (the Lesser Doxology: Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen – the Anglican version of which is usually rendered as ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen).
3. The Church permits those who want to, to start their Lenten observances of Abstinence and Penance on Septuagesima Sunday and to exclude Thursdays and Saturdays as well as Sundays from the observance. That is obviously an easier regime for children or the infirm to follow even though it starts two weeks earlier and still has forty days of Abstinence in it. Septuagesima Sunday also marks the start of Carnival proper (often Carnival celebrations start completely unofficially immediately after Epiphany) which ends on Fat Tuesday often called ‘Mardi Gras’ and usually called ‘Shrove Tuesday’ – the Tuesday immediately preceding Lent.
4. A ‘truckle cheese’ is a real and proper homemade cheese and is invariably a vaguely beer barrel shaped wheel of cheese still with its rind on. The word comes from the Latin trochlea meaning a wheel or, depending on context, the complete pulley.
5. Volume 11, Part 2, of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics refers.
J. Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities, London (UK), 1849.
R. Chambers, The Book of Days, Paris (France), 1908.
J. Stowe, Survey of London, London (UK), 1710.
Lucy Aikin, Memoires of the Court of Queen Eliabeth, London (UK), 1810.
H.A. Wilson (Editor), The Gelasian Sacramentary, Oxford (UK), 1891.
J. Hastings, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Edinburgh (UK), 1908-27.
Posted on 03/05/2011 12:05 AM by John M. Joyce