Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday and is also known as Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French). Celebrated with great fervour in many countries, including Ireland (Máirt Inide from Latin ‘initium’ – beginning of Lent), let’s look at some interesting traditions surrounding the day.
Lent is a period of religious observance in the Christian calendar commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry. In Western Churches, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later (depending on the Christian denomination) either on the evening of Maundy Thursday, or at sundown on Holy Saturday, when the Easter Vigil is celebrated.
The season immediately before Lent used to be called Shrovetide, a time for confessing sins (“shriving”). Today, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, but little else of the Lent-related Shrovetide survived the 16th-century English Reformation.
The specific custom of Christians in this part of the world eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday dates to the 16th century. In those times, an absolute ban on the eating of meat and lacticina (food derived from animals and poultry like eggs, butter, milk and cheese) for the duration of Lent meant households were under pressure to use their full stock of meat and dairy by Shrove Tuesday.
For this reason, many Christian congregations began to observe the day by eating pancakes and hosting pancake breakfasts.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
Peter Bruegel’s painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent of 1559 purports to show how people at the time perceived the arrival of Lent (in some parts of the Netherlands at least). It depicts a rotund man carried on a barrel while brandishing a lance on which a fowl and meat are skewered. He is confronting a nun-like figure carrying a staff to which a platter with fish is attached. Behind the barrel come figures singing and dancing, while on the other side there are well-behaved children. In the background, on the right there is a church from which nuns are emerging, while on the left clients are enjoying themselves at an inn. The painting does show the contrast between people’s enjoyment of life and what the church expected of them as the penitential season began.
Farewell to the Flesh?
The day before the Lenten season begins is often celebrated with carnivals and much fanfare among the general populace.
The word is said to come from the Late Latin expression carne levare, which means “remove meat”; a folk etymology derives it from carne vale, “farewell to meat”. In either case, this signifies the approaching fast. The word carne may also be translated as flesh, producing “a farewell to the flesh”, a phrase embraced by certain carnival celebrants to embolden the festival’s carefree spirit. The etymology of the word Carnival thus points to a Christian origin of the celebratory period.
The term Skelliking might sound new to you. Yes, it refers to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Skellig Islands but how are they involved with Shrove Tuesday traditions in Ireland?
A few hundred years ago, religious diktats enforced the fact that weddings could not take place during the Lenten season. The tradition was that Roman Catholics did not get married during fasting days, Lent or Advent, so the period leading up to Shrovetide was a time of weddings. This became a time when additional pressure was ramped up on singletons. Single people in Ireland were regarded as having a lesser social status, accused of being a burden to society and not fulfilling their duties by procreating.
What became known as Skelliking Day (or Skeleton Day) was a feature of Shrove Tuesday in parts of the south, especially Cork and Kerry. Noisy crowds would lead a procession onto the streets of towns in the region, loudly insulting the still-single and telling them to “go to the Skelligs”. The Skellig islands off the coast of Co. Kerry were said to still run under the old calendar, therefore Ash Wednesday would arrive later there, hence there would be still time for the single to go there to marry before Lent began.
According to an 1895 account: “All the marriageable young people, men, and women, in any parish, who are not gone over to the majority at Shrovetide, are said to be compelled to walk barefoot to the Skellig rocks, off the Kerry coast, on Shrove Tuesday night.”
Skellig lists were printed and displayed publicly, listing those about to go on the “grand sea excursion” to the islands. They would include names of real people, and often veered into offensive territory.
Surprisingly, until very recently, in some towns of Co Cork, the girls’ school would close about an hour before the boys’ every Shrove Tuesday. This was done to give the girls a chance to get home safely. Why? Because the Skelling day traditions now evolved to where the boys had free license to chase the girls, corral them with ropes, tie them up and eventually douse them with water.”
One Irish custom of the day was that any holly left over from Christmas should be saved for the fire to make the pancakes. As eating meat was to be banned for Lent, animals were slaughtered for a final Shrove Tuesday feast. More prosperous farmers ensured that any neighbours who were quite poor would get a portion.
With references from The weird historic traditions around Pancake Tuesday in Ireland by Marion McGarry/RTÉ Brainstorm and Skelliking Day: Ireland’s ancient form of Mardi Gras before Lent by Irish Central.