Each year hungry customers pour into IHOP restaurants around the country for National Pancake Day. But the holiday is about more than freebies at America's most famous pancake chain.
It's a nationally recognized holiday in England. In fact, the English have been flipping pancakes for hundreds of years. They were tossing them way back in the 15th century. It was an efficient way to get rid of old butter, milk and eggs before these foods had to be given up for Lent. The day became known as Shrove Tuesday and is the day before Ash Wednesday, which precedes the Lent fast for Catholics.
Shrove comes from the old English word shrive. Shriving is the process by which a person would confess his or her sins to a priest and then receive penance for it, according to the Essex Chronicle. The tradition goes back over 1,000 years. Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration but also a day of repentance. It's the last day to indulge on savory foods like fats and proteins that likely won't keep through the 40 days of Lent.
Shrove Tuesday is also known by its French name Mardis Gras. The French name means "fat Tuesday" and echoes the need to use up all the fats before they go bad. Pancakes became associated with this day because they're an easy way to get rid of butter and eggs. All you have to do is add some flour and you're all set. In Iceland the day is known as Sprengidagur, which means "bursting day." And in Greece it's called Apokries, or "from the meat," a last farewell to fleshy foods before the fast.
The holiday likely has its roots in pagan festivals. The celebrations before Ash Wednesday go back to pre-Christian times. Ancient tribes of Europe would have festivals to mark the change between winter and summer and the agricultural rewards the transition brings. The Romans would also celebrate the Spring Equinox with festivities, including a circus festival worshiping the pastoral deity Lupercus.
The English don't just stuff their faces on Pancake Day, they also get some exercise. Pancake races are common in England on Shrove Tuesday. They're believed to have begun in 1445, according to the BBC. A woman was getting her pancake on in her kitchen when she heard the church bell ringing to call the townsfolk to a shriving service. Rather than miss confession — or her newly made pancakes — she took the grilled pile of dough with her, frying pan and all. One of the most famous pancake races is in Olney in Buckinghamshire. This year marks the 569th year the town has had an annual pancake race. Generations of families in the town have taken part over the centuries.