Bacon and eggs, pancakes with lemon and sprinkled sugar, ash crosses and the hymn “Amazing Grace” are all connected to this time of year. Collop Monday, which I think is a lovely name, was yesterday – and is so called after the traditional dish of the day, consisting of slices of leftover meat along with eggs.
Collops (pieces of bacon) were traditionally eaten as part of the Lenten preparations, using up any meat left in the larder or cold store; another advantage of having collops was the source of fat produced for the pancakes made on Shrove Tuesday.
Pancake with lemon, ready to be sprinkled with sugar
A modern day full English breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausage, black pudding, bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns, and half a tomato
Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than in the early Middle Ages when meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden, as part of the religious influence, but probably also because life at that time of year would have been difficult – as the end of the winter stores were dwindling, while the spring crops had not really started.
Although originally of pagan content, the traditional carnival celebrations which precede Lent in many cultures have become associated with the season of fasting if only because they are the last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday is now part of the diverse Carnival celebrations which take place in many parts of the Christian world, from Greece, to Germany, to the Mardi Gras and Carnival of the Americas.
Shrovetide is this three day period just before the opening of Lent, when people went to confession, called shriving, and afterwards indulged in all sorts of sports and merry-making. The community celebrations around England go back centuries – but the best known one is the pancake race.
Shrove Tuesday was once known as a ‘half-holiday’ in England. It started with the ringing in the villages and towns of the Pancake Bell, which was the signal for the villagers to cease work, go home to make pancakes or join in the fun and games.
Lent personified at a Carnival celebration. Detail of 1559 painting "The Battle between Carnival and Lent" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The tradition of the pancake race is said to have originated when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the shriving bells ring for the service. She raced out of the house to the church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, probably tossing it as she went so as not to burn it!
The Olney Pancake Day Race has been held since 1445 and now competes each year with the town of Liberal, Kansas for the fastest international time, I can’t find a connection as to why – nor can I find a good picture of Liberal... it is flat though!
The ingredients for pancakes are symbolic: eggs for creation, flour for the staff of life, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. Remember to let the batter stand for an hour or two to let the starch swell and the bubbles to pop ensuring each pancake will hold together. A tiny drizzle of the collops’ fat went into the frying pan, heated through until the pan was almost smoking ready for a half ladleful of batter to just cover the base of the pan and give you a good fine thin pancake.
I remember the simple pancakes we always had at home .. cooked on the Aga, kept warm in the bottom oven, while another was cooked ... eventually the pancakes came out for dessert – to be drizzled with fresh lemon, sprinkled with sugar, rolled up and guzzled, before three childish requests ‘please can I have another’ rebounded round the kitchen – appetites need to be satiated! I prefer plain – I think! Though I know there are masses of alternatives.
Olney has another well known claim to fame – the hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton in the 1770s, who was curate in Olney at the time, and published in 1779, but the hymn settled into relative obscurity. In the States however, “Amazing Grace” was used extensively during the early 19th century, and when in 1835 the hymn was joined with the tune “New Britain”, it has over time become one of the most famous and universal of all folk hymns.
The vicarage in Olney where Newton wrote the hymn that would become "Amazing Grace".
Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During my foray (good historical reads) around Wikipedia on Amazing Grace, John Newton and the Olney Hymns I came across this epitaph, which Newton wrote himself – and perhaps it appropriately sums up this post .. Newton enjoyed life – and would have loved the revelries of Shrovetide – but turned to repent and pay penance when he was restored to mercy, before devoting himself to poems, hymns and the Church.
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.
Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,
And twenty-eight years in this Church.
The bottom of page 53 of Olney Hymns shows the first stanza of what became "Amazing Grace".
Collop Monday, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday all seem appropriate names in the circumstance. What do you think? and have you had pancakes today?
PS - question from Sara .. and here's the explanation from Olney Town Council site: The Olney Pancake Race, dating back more than five hundred years, is held on Shrove Tuesday. The course is 415 yards long and is run from the Market Place to the Church at 11.55 a.m. Participants, housewives or young ladies of the town, must have lived in Olney for at least 3 months and be at least 18 years old. Competitors must wear the traditional costume of a housewife, including a skirt, apron and head covering. They must of course carry a frying pan containing a pancake. The winner, on crossing the line, must toss her pancake and she is then greeted by the verger with the traditional kiss of peace. The race is immediately followed by a Shriving service in the Parish Church when the official Olney and Liberal prizes are presented.
Dear Mr Postman – have you had pancakes today to warm you up after the pouring rain we had this morning? They had pancake tossing up at the Nursing Home, but sadly we do not participate in mealtimes, the residents seemed to enjoy it – much hilarity all round. My mother is much the same, but she now has a nebuliser and perhaps that will alleviate her throat. She’s still incredibly aware and with it – asking me about the blog! Let’s hope her hearing returns, though obviously she’s very sleepy.
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