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Shrove Tuesday – Definition, History, and Traditions

Christians around the world are preparing to observe Lent. Lent is a movable feast and the first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, which, this year, falls on February 26. But before Ash Wednesday, Christians enjoy Shrove Tuesday. The day is popularly known in Ireland and the Commonwealth countries as Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday.

Christians who observe Shrove Tuesday consider it a day to do penance. It’s a day for soul cleansing. At the same time, it is also a day to celebrate the last day to have a feast before the start of Lent. And the favorite food for Shrove Tuesday is pancake. Would you believe that there is even a pancake race for the public (at least in Europe)?

But eating pancake is not an ordinary tradition. It has links to an ancient religious custom.

What does “Shrove” mean in Shrove Tuesday?

The original name of Shrove Tuesday was Shrovetide. It was the last day of that particular week before the start of Lent. The English equivalent of Shrovetide was Carnival, which came from the Latin phrase, ”carnem levare” or ”to take away the flesh” in English. In Louisiana in the United States, the term translates into Mardi gras, a two-week celebration that ends on Shrove Tuesday. In Germany, it is called Fasching, their carnival season that starts on November 11 and ends at midnight of Shrove Tuesday.

Typically, it is the last day to be merry, but traditionally, it is the time to discard carnal pleasures and prepare themselves spiritually.

Shrive” is an archaic English term that means to gain absolution or be forgiven of one’s sins through confession. Thus the priests hear people’s confessions and give them absolution to prepare them for the Lenten season. Cleansed of their sins, people would be able to repent during Lent and renew their faith throughout the season.

Shrove Tuesday is very significant in England and many parts of Europe especially during the Middle Ages, where it was a tradition to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. By preparing pancakes, families deplete their stock of milk, eggs, fat, and butter so they would not be tempted to have them while observing Lent. As you know, religious observances were very strict in the old days, and people followed the regulations given by the Church. So during Lent, people follow the prescribed Lenten fast – no animal and meat products, including eggs, cheese, butter, and milk.

What is the origin of Shrove Tuesday?

The observance of Shrove Tuesday began many centuries ago. It was mentioned in the Ecclesiastical Institutes of Ælfric of Eynsham, published around 1000 AD. In the text, it was said that people were supposed to confess their sins to a confessor, who would ”shrive” them with penance according to the severity of their sins. The confession should be done during the week before Lent.

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, Shrovetide lasted for several days until the beginning of Lent, with many people eating pancakes, and other foods that were cooked with fat, eggs and butter, as these items should not be eaten during Lent. In some areas, all forms of animal and meat products were avoided as well.


For the Christians in Britain, the custom of eating pancakes started in the 16th century. In several Christian churches, whether they were Roman Catholic or Protestant churches, the ringing of the church bells was a popular tradition for Shrove Tuesday. In those times, the custom was called ”Shriving Bell.” It became the signal for people to go to confession, as well as to start making pancakes.

Another popular tradition in the UK is the ”pancake race.” Women carrying a pan with a pancake run in a race. They have to flip the pancake three times while running towards the church. The winner serves the pancake to the bell ringer who in turn kisses the winner. In Olney, Buckinghamshire, only homemakers can participate in the race.

While many regions and countries observe Shrove Tuesday by cooking and sharing their different versions of pancakes, cities and counties worldwide traditionally honor the day with other activities.

  • New Orleans – Mardi gras (302nd year in 2020), featuring the tossing of bead necklaces
  • Belgium – Carnival of Binche, with people wearing fancy large hats with feathers and throwing oranges, symbolizing good luck
  • Bolivia – Carnival of Oruro, a spellbinding event to celebrate good overpowering evil
  • Caribbean – Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, with street food, steel pan bands and costume parade
  • Italy – Carnival of Venice where people wear exquisitely designed porcelain masks

What is the difference between Shrove Tuesday and Fat Tuesday?

Shrove Tuesday is the last day to indulge in food, especially the fatty ones before they abstain from food that are not recommended for Lent. Shrove Tuesday means using up (and not wasting) the food that are not allowed. Therefore, the family gets to enjoy a feast, using up the food items that would spoil during the forty days of Lent.

This period of eating all the fatty foods started the name Mardi gras in French, which translates to ”fat Tuesday.”

Thus, there is no difference between the two terms. Fat Tuesday is from the French and Shrove Tuesday is from the British.

Moreover, Shrove Tuesday is also called differently in other countries.

In England, Ireland and the Commonwealth nations it is also called Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday. In Irish, the correct term is Máirt Inide. Here’s more:

  • Germany – Karnevalsdiensta, Faschingsdienstag or Fastnachtsdienstag
  • German communities in the U.S. – Fastnacht Day
  • Netherlands – vastenavond (vastelaovend in Limburgish)
  • Parts of Switzerland – Güdisdienstag or Güdeldienstag
  • In Italian-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-speaking countries – Carnival (English), (Carnaval in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Dutch/Carnevale in Italian)
  • Rio de Janeiro – Brazilian Carnival
  • Venice – Carnival
  • Spain – Dia de la Tortilla (Omelette Day)
  • Madeira – Terça-feira Gorda
  • Hawaii – Malasada Day
  • Norway and Denmark – Fastelavn
  • Estonia – Vastlapäev
  • Iceland -–Sprengidagur
  • Lithuania – Užgavėnės
  • Sweden – Fettisdagen
  • Finland – Laskiainen

Whatever name you call Shrove Tuesday, we hope that you’ll have great fun before abstaining from meat and animal products, at least for forty days. If you need translation services any time and any day, please get in touch with eTranslation Services. We have a large network of native-speaking professional translators living all over the world. We can easily connect you to one of our expert translators whenever you need one. You can send us an email at [email protected] and request a quote. You can likewise get in touch with us by calling (800) 882-6058.

Happy Shrove Tuesday, everyone!

Image Copyright: U.S. Air Force Photo/Dan Rohan / Public domain

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