Monday, February 20, 2012

Shrove Tuesday Preparation

In two days, Catholics begin the Lenten journey, and there's no better way to prepare for an extended period of fasting and solemnity than to have a feast. Many of the original Shrove Tuesday celebrations were much more innocent than the infamous Mardi Gras debauchery that goes on nowadays, although there have certainly always been excesses associated with the day. Chickens had it particularly rough.

"In some places it was common practice to put a cock in an earthenware vessel made for the purpose, with holes for it to stick its head and tail out, and strung up about 4 metres above street; people would throw stones till it broke, and the winner got the chook [chicken]."

Hens also had their share of hardship:

"This was another popular pastime in Olde England that chickens didn’t look forward to. A hen was put on a man's back, everyone else was blindfolded with maids' aprons and the man had horse bells hung on him. They had to hit the hen with boughs. After this the hen was eaten with bacon, pancakes and fritters."

And lazy women received their just punishment:

"Any woman known to lie in bed too long, or be slack in any way, had the first pancake presented to her. It was customary that no one would eat it, so it was given to the dog."

But the primary victim on Shrove Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday himself. As noted in Fraser's Golden Bough (which, Wittgensteinian philosophical objections aside, has some fantastic descriptions of traditional feasts and customs):

"In Normandy on the evening of Ash Wednesday it used to be the custom to hold a celebration called the Burial of Shrove Tuesday. A squalid effigy scantily clothed in rags, a battered old hat crushed down on his dirty face, his great round paunch stuffed with straw, represented the disreputable old rake who, after a long course of dissipation, was now about to suffer for his sins. Hoisted on the shoulders of a sturdy fellow, who pretended to stagger under the burden, this popular personification of the Carnival promenaded the streets for the last time in a manner the reverse of triumphal. Preceded by a drummer and accompanied by a jeering rabble, among whom the urchins and all the tag-rag and bobtail of the town mustered in great force, the figure was carried about by the flickering light of torches to the discordant din of shovels and tongs, pots and pans, horns and kettles, mingled with hootings, groans, and hisses. From time to time the procession halted, and a champion of morality accused the broken-down old sinner of all the excesses he had committed and for which he was now about to be burned alive. The culprit, having nothing to urge in his own defence, was thrown on a heap of straw, a torch was put to it, and a great blaze shot up, to the delight of the children who frisked round it screaming out some old popular verses about the death of the Carnival. Sometimes the effigy was rolled down the slope of a hill before being burnt."

Apparently, the Shrove Tuesday man wasn't always stuffed with straw; in the Ardennes, an unfortunate incident put a halt to Shrove Tuesday celebrations for centuries:

"In some villages of the Ardennes a young man of flesh and blood, dressed up in hay and straw, used to act the part of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), as the personification of the Carnival is often called in France after the last day of the period which he personates. He was brought before a mock tribunal, and being condemned to death was placed with his back to a wall, like a soldier at a military execution, and fired at with blank cartridges. At Vrigne-aux-Bois one of these harmless buffoons, named Thierry, was accidentally killed by a wad that had been left in a musket of the firing-party. When poor Shrove Tuesday dropped under the fire, the applause was loud and long, he did it so naturally; but when he did not get up again, they ran to him and found him a corpse. Since then there have been no more of these mock executions in the Ardennes."

Apologies for the numerous quotes in this post, but these descriptions are hard to replicate. Perhaps the best summary of traditional Shrove Tuesday we could find comes from Sir Walter Scott in The Fair Maid of Perth:

"...the evening being that of Shrovetide, or, as it was called in Scotland, Fastern's E'en, the vigils of gaiety were by far the most frequented of the three. The common people had, throughout the day, toiled and struggled at football; the nobles and gentry had fought cocks, and hearkened to the wanton music of the minstrel; while the citizens had gorged themselves upon pancakes fried in lard, and brose, or brewis--the fat broth, that is, in which salted beef had been boiled, poured upon highly toasted oatmeal, a dish which even now is not ungrateful to simple, old fashioned Scottish palates. These were all exercises and festive dishes proper to the holiday. It was no less a solemnity of the evening that the devout Catholic should drink as much good ale and wine as he had means to procure; and, if young and able, that he should dance at the ring, or figure among the morrice dancers, who, in the city of Perth, as elsewhere, wore a peculiarly fantastic garb, and distinguished themselves by their address and activity. All this gaiety took place under the prudential consideration that the long term of Lent, now approaching, with its fasts and deprivations, rendered it wise for mortals to cram as much idle and sensual indulgence as they could into the brief space which intervened before its commencement."

So ready your beef, your lard, your pancake ingredients, your wine and ale, and your chickens! And here's a little rhyme for the wee ones to memorize and recite:

Shrove Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday,
Poor Jack went to plough.
His mother made pancakes,
But she didn't know how.
She tossed them, she turned them,
She made them all black.
She put so much pepper,
She poisoned poor Jack. 




  1. Wish we could be neighbors, so that we could have feasted on pancakes together. We, also, had homemade chocolate ice cream and ate a fair number of sausages with our meal, as well as wine. Great post and let me assure you that I heartily enjoy all the literary quotes.

    1. Let us know next time you are in Phoenix and we shall feast!