Monday, 15 February 2010


“On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.” - George Gordon Byron

Today is Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”, or “Pancake Tuesday”). In most Western churches this is the last day of the pre-Lenten non-fasting period.  It was a day during which all remaining eggs, milk, butter and cheese in the house had to be consumed, hence the custom of making pancakes. The name Shrove comes from the old word “shrive” which means to confess. On Shrove Tuesday, in the Middle Ages, people used to confess their sins so that they were forgiven before the season of Lent began. Mardi Gras was also the last opportunity for feasting and for having a good time, as these pleasures were forbidden during Lent - hence the Mardi Gras parades and the carnival fancy dress parties.

Lent is meant to be a time of abstinence, when people used to repent and fast, giving up dietary items that were forbidden in the diet. So Shrove Tuesday was the last chance to indulge oneself, and to use up the foods that weren’t allowed in Lent. Pancakes are eaten on this day because they contain fat, butter and eggs, which were forbidden during Lent. It is extremely rare nowadays for people to fast during Lent, and many young people in Western countries have no idea what “to fast” or “Lent” means.

Pancake races are still held in many places in England on this day. The object of the race is to get to finish first while flipping a pancake in a frying pan a certain number of times. The skill is not so much in running the race but in flipping and catching the pancake, which must be intact (and still in the pan!) when the winner finishes. The most famous pancake race takes place at Olney. According to tradition, in 1445 a woman of Olney heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to the church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan. The Olney pancake race is now world famous. Competitors have to be local housewives and they must wear an apron and a hat or scarf. Each contestant has a frying pan containing a hot, cooking pancake. She must toss it three times during the race that starts at the market square at 11.55 am. The first woman to complete the winding 375-metre course (the record is 63 seconds set in 1967) and arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bell ringer, and be kissed by him, is the winner. She also receives a prayer book from the vicar.

In Greece, Lent starts on “Clean Monday” (the Monday before Shrove Tuesday when Eastern and Western Easters coincide, as happens this year). In the Greek Orthodox faith, the period of Lenten fasting begins on “Clean Monday” and continues until midnight on Easter Saturday, a period of 48 days. The Greek term for Lent is Meghále Saracosté, meaning the “great 40th day”, fast being implied, and the “great” including the extra 8 days of fasting.  The Mikré Saracosté “lesser 40th day fast” of the Greek Orthodox Church is the one preceding Christmas and lasts 40 days.

The term “Clean Monday” not only refers to the “clean” Lenten food, but also refers to the Spring cleaning which was traditionally done on this day. Everything was taken out of the house, furniture dusted, floors mopped, walls were whitewashed, houses aired, and the rubbish taken out of the village and burnt.  This represented a purification of the house, readying it for the Lenten period ahead.  In Greece, Clean Monday is a time when children go out and fly kites, a practice known as koúlouma, which usually combines this kite-flying with a picnic in the countryside.  It is customary to eat a special unleavened bread on this day, called a laghána.  The baking of this special bread may be related to the Roman Feast of Ovens, the Fornacalia at around this time. During this feast, it was customary to eat wheaten flat cakes resembling the laghána. The Fornacalia  cakes may also be linked to the tradition of baking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
   The Great Apokriá is gone and o’er
   Masquerading, feasting, alas no more.
   Lent is here, Clean Monday dear -
   Eat your olives and great God fear!
Greek Folk Rhyme

The Great Apokriá is the Greek carnival, celebrated on the Sunday before Clean Monday. The city of Patras is renowned for its carnival. Several other cities also have great carnival traditions in Greece. The small town of Galaxeidi to the West of Athens holds a special “flour fight” on Clean Monday, which is anything but clean after tinted flour bombs are used to hold mock battles in its streets. The fighting gets pretty intensive if the protective gear that the revellers are wearing are anything to go by (see picture!).

Have a Good Lent!

1 comment:

  1. How fascinating! it is true that we are losing many of our traditions and religious observances in Western countries. Unfortunately they ar enot being replaced by anything better than 24-hour shopping and pleasure-seeking selfish existence...