The History of Shrove Tuesday

Originally featured in the Granville Catholic Church Record (23/02/2020) 

In Australia and Britain the day preceding Ash Wednesday is popularly known as Shrove Tuesday. It is also frequently called Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday as well as by its Latin name, Mardi Gras, which when translated from the French also means “Fat Tuesday.” But it is the name “Shrove” that shows its religious origins. Shrove is the past tense of the English verb “to shrive” which means to obtain absolution for our s ins by confession and penance. Dating back to A.D. 1000, over the years Shrove Tuesday not only became a day for confession but a time for Catholics to feast on eggs, sugar and dairy products which are traditionally restricted during the Lenten fast.

Not only was Shrove Tuesday a last chance to gorge on such foods but it was also a way to use them up before the fast began. In Britain the feast of these foods would become pancakes, hence the name Pancake Tuesday. The idea of Pancake Tuesday to celebrate the eve of the Lenten fast gathered momentum in the Middle Ages in England with pancake races and pancake tossing, traditions which remain in certain villages and towns to this day. With Shrove Tuesday taking place before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, it is the day when we are encouraged to go to confession in preparation for the penitential season that will end 40 days and 40 nights later with Easter Sunday.

And this day is also marked with the ceremonies of the burning of the palms and the holy oils of baptism, chrism, and infirmum, and the burial of the “Alleluia.” The palms which are burned are those blessed last year on Palm Sunday. These palms are gathered and burned, along with the holy oils blessed and consecrated at last year’s Chrism Mass, to make the ashes which are imposed on our heads on Ash Wednesday. And with this the “Alleluia” is buried as a mark that this word is never spoken during Lent, but rather we await its “resurrection” at the Easter Vigil when the Deacon announces to the Bishop, “I have brought you news of great joy. It is the Alleluia.”