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Pancake dinners rooted in history as Lenten season begins


The Dialog

Youth at St. Francis de Sales Parish prepared for Lent with a pancake flipping contest while hosting a pancake dinner on the eve of Ash Wednesday.

Some adults also participated in the friendly competition in which already cooked pancakes were flipped from a skillet. The goal was to flip a pancake as many times as possible within a minute. Some were credited with 60 to 80 flips; others were not quite so fortunate.

The dinner and flapjack flipping provided a lesson in how, as Catholic practices have changed over the years, some old practices became traditions woven into the fabric of local Catholic cultures. Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers — such as those hosted by St. Francis de Sales youth ministry in Salisbury, Good Shepherd School in Perryville, and at least three parishes in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore – keep alive a practice that originated in the British Isles.

Aiden Reilly, an eighth-grader at St. Francis de Sales School, was credited with 62 flips of the pancake within one minute. (Dialog photo/Gary Morton)

“The customs before Lent vary from time to time and place to place,” said Father Michael Witczak, associate professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology at Catholic University of America. “A lot of these customs arise at a time when people lived more communally than they do now, were more aware of the people around them. There was a commonality in how you lived your life.”

Other regions developed their own pre-Lenten traditions

For example, in his hometown of Milwaukee, Father Witczak said, “the custom is not pancakes but paczki” — jelly-filled donuts that originated in Poland. In southern Europe the period before Lent came to be known as Carnival – literally “farewell to meat,” according to Father Witczak. It still is celebrated in New Orleans and other locales along the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, and in Rio de Janeiro, culminating on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Fastnacht Day, which originated in Germany and is celebrated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, involves feasting on fine foods the day before Lent. Fastnacht means Fast Night.

In some cases, the traditions went overboard, with the excessive feasting and partying that depicts, for example, Mardi Gras. “You play hard because you’re going to fast hard,” Father Witczak said. “It’s very human in that way.”  

The pancake suppers became a custom in the British Isles, where Shrove Tuesday ended a period called Shrovetide. During that weeklong period, Catholics were expected to go to confession and learn the penance they were to perform during Lent, to atone for their sins. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, church bells in England, Scotland and Ireland would toll to call people to church so they could confess their sins and learn the penance required to receive absolution.

“The idea of confessing before Lent is tied in with the old custom of public penance,” Father Witczak said. Penance would include “so many days of fasting, or wearing sackcloth, or some other penitential act.”

The penance undertaken during Lent led to one of the more visible signs of the beginning of Lent. “That is the origin of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday: entering the order of public penitents.”

The tie to Ash Wednesday was strengthened at St. Francis de Sales on Tuesday as, toward the end of he pancake supper, palms blessed at Palm Sunday services last year were burned for ashes used at the parish the next day.

Jack Gardner, a seventh grader at Worcester Prep, was credited with 63 flips. (Dialog photo/Gary Morton)

Pancake suppers on Shrove Tuesday began in preparation of Lenten fast, which was a daily routine in which one full meal could be eaten as well as two smaller snacks, which together would not equal one full meal. At the time they began, Catholics were called to avoid fatty foods and dairy products as they fasted throughout Lent, and to abstain from meat on Fridays. Pancakes became a way for people to reduce or empty their supply of eggs, milk and lard before Lent began. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is still called Pancake Day in England.

In modern times, Catholics are encouraged to make the sacrament of reconciliation, as penance or confession is now called, during Lent, rather than before. Deaneries (geographic clusters of parishes) and many parishes host penance services during Lent.

Fasting regulations also have changed. Pope Paul VI, in a 1966 apostolic letter titled “Paenitemini,” reduced the number of days Catholics were required to fast during Lent and called people to personal penitence.

“For most people, Lenten discipline was a purely external thing: You have all these disciplinary things that you would follow,” Father Witczak said. “Pope Paul VI wanted people to think about the fact that penance is a personal choice … you have to claim it as your own.”

That explains why the tradition of pancake suppers on Shrove Tuesday continues even though, liturgically, the significance of Shrovetide has dwindled sharply. But how does the St. Francis de Sales pancake race tie in to it?

Pancake races began by what might have merely been an anecdote had it not “gone viral,” to use today’s vernacular for a fifteenth century incident.

Liza Alvarado-Mutchler, in her first year as youth minister at St. Francis, explained that in 1445, “a woman from Olney, Buckinghamshire, heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to the church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan.” Soon annual Shrove Tuesday races began commemorating the woman’s frantic dash to confession.

“In the United Kingdom, pancake races form an important part of the Shrove Tuesday celebrations. The object is to get to the finish line first, carrying a frying pan with a cooked pancake in it and flipping the pancake as you run.”

While the race has nothing directly to do with Lent, fasting and abstinence, Alvarado-Mutchler believes it helps make the Shove Tuesday observance into a celebration. “Shrove Tuesday is a great opportunity to eat, have clean fun, and get ready for our 40 days of Lent.”