Piete Bruegel the Elder- The Fight between Carnival and Lent
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It's a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins. Anglo-Saxon Christians went to confession and were "shriven" (absolved from their sins). In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution for them. When a person receives absolution for their sins, they are forgiven for them and released from the guilt and pain that they have caused them.
In the Catholic or Orthodox context, a priest pronounces the absolution. This tradition dates back over 1000 years. An Anglo-Saxon monk wrote, “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.”
A bell would be rung to call people to confession. This came to be called the “Pancake Bell” and is still rung today.
Shrove Tuesday is commonly known as Pancake Day after the fried batter recipe traditionally eaten on this day. It is a day of celebration as well as penitence, as it's the last day before Lent, and as Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up, so Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge by using up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent.
Historically, during Lent there were many foods that Christians would not eat. These included meat, fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday to use up the foods that wouldn't survive the forty days of Lent.
The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras ('fat Tuesday'). Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday, as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour.
Pancake races are thought to have begun in 1445. It is remembered in the most famous of pancake races, which takes place at Olney in Buckinghamshire. According to tradition, in 1445 a woman of Olney heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to the church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan. The Olney pancake race is now world famous. Competitors have to be local housewives and they must wear an apron and a hat or scarf. Each contestant has a frying pan containing a hot pancake. She must toss it three times during the race. The first woman to complete the course and arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bell ringer and be kissed by him is the winner.
Other events in the UK include one at Westminster School in London, where the annual Pancake Grease is held. A verger from Westminster Abbey leads a procession of boys into the playground where the school cook tosses a huge pancake over a five-metre high bar. The boys then race to grab a portion of the pancake and the one who ends up with the largest piece receives a cash bonus from the Dean.
In Scarborough, Yorkshire, on Shrove Tuesday, everyone assembles on the promenade to skip. Long ropes are stretched across the road and there maybe be ten or more people skipping on one rope. The origins of this custom is not known but skipping was once a magical game, associated with the sowing and spouting of seeds which may have been played on barrows (burial mounds) during the Middle Ages.
Many towns throughout England used to hold traditional Shrove Tuesday football ('Mob Football”) games dating back as far back as the 12th century. The practice mostly died out with the passing of the 1835 Highways Act which banned the playing of football on public highways, but a number of towns have managed to maintain the tradition to the present day including Alnwick in Northumberland, Ashbourne in Derbyshire (called the Royal Shrovetide Football Match), Atherstone in Warwickshire, Sedgefield (called the Ball Game) in County Durham and St Columb Major (called Hurling the Silver Ball) in Cornwall.