Pancakes, donuts and carnival

Published on 12 Feb 2018
A painting of a snowy Russian scene showing a Shrovetide carnival
Elizabeth Harrison reflects on the importance of Shrove Tuesday and observing Lent in Christian traditions


You can tell that Pancake Day is coming in the UK because in the supermarkets they fill the ends of aisles with ready-made batter mixes, flour, lemon juice, and maybe tins of syrup. For some families, making pancakes might be the only vestiges of an ancient religious tradition, with Ash Wednesday forgotten and Lenten observances reduced to an excuse to give up chocolate.

When I was a child we always ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, usually with lemon and sugar. This is what passes for tradition here in Britain. Every year I continue this tradition – often using it as an excuse to get some friends together, who usually bring other ingredients to make fillings. Over the years we’ve experimented with blueberries, golden syrup, bananas, cream, chocolate spread, cheese and ham. Not necessarily on the same pancake! Mind you, making pancakes for lots of people is quite exhausting and can be a minor exercise in self-sacrifice when you realise they’ve eaten most of them and you only have the tiny one at the end, so that can be a good way to prepare for Lent. The next day the secular friends carry on as normal while I consider how to get through the working day while fasting (to an appropriate degree) and suddenly remember I’ve not worked out what to ‘give up for Lent’. Sometimes my resolution kicks in at midnight on the Tuesday as I finally work out what I’ve decided to do. I remember that the American Jesuit, James Martin SJ, said that he got his friends to choose what he would do for Lent. That takes some amazing degree of trust in your friends! What do you do to celebrate Shrovetide? And how do you decide what to give up for Lent?

There are different traditions in other countries. In Russia, for example, they eat pancakes for a whole week! ‘Maslenitsa’ is the great Shrovetide festival and is still observed by many, whether religious or not. In Russian Orthodoxy the fast is kept far more seriously than in modern-day Catholic practice, with some Orthodox believers not eating meat throughout Lent, meaning some restaurants and cafes produce special ‘Lenten’ menus. There is certainly some crossover between ancient pagan practices and Christian customs. A famous painting by the painter Boris Kustodiev also reminds us that by Shrovetide in Russia it is usually still very cold and snowy.

In Poland, it is not pancakes that are shared and consumed, but donuts! Tlusty czwartek (Fat Thursday) is celebrated the week before Ash Wednesday, and families and friends get together to eat, and importantly, share their favourite pastries, particularly donuts. Not American style donuts, but donuts all the same. If you have Polish friends in the UK you may well have been offered something sweet on this day too.

In Italy, the most famous carnival is probably in Venice, which is famous for the beautiful masks. This goes back to the idea from medieval times that during carnival everything is turned upside down, and the usual social order is changed.

In places like the Caribbean, they have a really big carnival tradition. In Trinidad and Tobago for example, it is a national occasion and attracts tourists, with music festivals, dancing, costumes and parties going on, quite a remove from the staid English lemon and sugar with pancakes. In Britain too the Caribbean community hold carnivals such as the Notting Hill Carnival (there are equivalent events in other parts of the country) although these are held in the summer. In Trinidad and Tobago, the annual carnival is held just before Ash Wednesday, keeping to the original tradition.

Lent can be a time for Christians to show their faith to others, starting with ashes on Ash Wednesday, and carrying through to Easter by observing Lenten acts, whether that entails deepening our prayer life, attending Mass and confession, fasting, almsgiving or even fundraising for charity. There are many different ways to observe Lent. One year I gave up drinking coffee. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done, but it had a bad effect on me as I became grumpy, and I resolved not to try it again. Another year I was sponsored to give up Facebook. During Lent we all might observe that line between witnessing to our faith but not, like the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, showing off that observance. That can be tricky. Sometimes if we are giving something up it is much easier to tell others, so that they can support us in our decision, and maybe keep an eye out lest we err. But are we showing off? This year when you consider your Lenten observance, you might think about striking that balance, and how your observance will best witness to your faith.

But perhaps some of us are very good at being Lenten Christians, and not quite so good at being carnival Christians, or Easter Christians? Pope Francis is constantly reminding us to be joyful in our faith, which is perhaps trickier than it sounds. Easter, for example, ought to be celebrated as much as Christmas, though perhaps without the presents! Perhaps we can all think of ways of better marking the joy of Easter this year.

Further food for thought in my discovery this week that Quakers do not observe Easter. My astonishment at this was marked not by prejudice as such but came from a very Catholic perspective, that feast days are quite necessary, but I read this on a Quaker website:

‘We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.’

A testament to finding God in all things. We are an Easter people, after all.  

But assuming you are not a Quaker, then whatever your way of celebrating, surely it is worth doing so in some form. Lenten fasting might not be appropriate for everyone, and there are many different ways of fasting and abstaining, besides the obvious. But the reflective mood of Lent requires, for most of us, a celebration at either end, if only to keep us going. Although these days I probably look forward to Lent more than any other season, most people think of it as a relatively dreary time. That is doubtless why the shops are often filled with Easter eggs so far in advance of Lent.

There is a lesson for us here. How can we believe in the resurrection without the crucifixion? But how too, can we hold the passion and crucifixion of Christ truly in our hearts, if we do not also look forward to his resurrection? Perhaps we can take a lesson from carnival and remember to turn things upside down this Lent.

Read more about the history and meaning of Carnival on Thinking Faith >>

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