Shrove Tuesday: It’s Mardi Gras, Carnival and Pancake Day

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 17: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Pancake Day—all describe the massive celebration that takes place one day before the start of the Christian season of reflection and penitence known as Lent.

Make no mistake—in some countries, this colossal party is the biggest bash of the year. Roots of this festival can be traced to the pagan era, but Christians have been using the day for shriving—confessing—and cleaning out their cupboards of sugar and lard for centuries. In parts of England, traditional pancake races still take place on Shrove Tuesday, and pancakes of all flavors are served across the UK. In Rio de Janiero, Brazil—home of the world’s largest Carnival eventfestivities last for days and boast exquisite costumes, elaborate samba dances, tantalizing foods and seemingly endless parades.

Did you know? Carnival derives from the term carne levare, “to take away meat.” The term is still used in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries to refer to the approaching abstinence of Lent.


Some Christian denominations mark Shrove Tuesday on their calendars, including Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In preparation for the start of Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray to God for assistance during the 40-day period of fasting and repentance. Some churches with daily liturgies include special Shrove Tuesday prayers.

Much of the action on this holiday unfolds at home. Hundreds of years ago, as housewives cleared their cupboards of “indulgent” foods like sugar, lard and butter before Lent, they baked treats with the rich ingredients. Before the fasting of the Lenten season, housewives prepared the pancakes and other foods that are still consumed on Shrove Tuesday. In Sweden, the semla pastry is prepared; in Lithuania, spurgo doughnuts are consumed; in Estonia, vastlakukkel sweet buns are filled with jam and eaten with whipped cream; in Poland and in Polish communities in the U.S., the paczki is a favorite treat. (Wikipedia has details.)


Literally “fat Tuesday,” or “grease Tuesday,” from the French Mardi Gras, the day preceding Ash Wednesday is the stuff of legends. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday activities date to the 12th Century. One traditional story says that the 11 a.m. ringing of the church bell caught a housewife was in the midst of cooking pancakes. As a result, this woman brought her frying pan—with a pancake still inside—to church. Races that require participants to toss pancakes into the air while running have been popular across the UK ever since. In London, the Rehab Parliamentary Pancake Race gathers teams from the British Houses to raise awareness for health and social care for the disabled and marginalized.

Australians love pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, as well, with many pancake fundraisers benefiting churches and charities. In Brazil and Italy, the festivities of Carnival(e) draw millions of tourists. (The International Business Times reported, with photos from Brazil. Alternatively, the Guardian captured 2015 media from Venice.) In New Orleans, Louisina, crowds flock to the French Quarter for a boisterous version of Mardi Gras.


Interested in livening up your go-to version of the pancake?

The Guardian rounded up reader recipes, with these tasty results.

English Chef Thomasina Miers suggests homemade Nutella, with more recipes here.

The Huffington Post serves up 16 pancake recipe ideas.


YouTube launched a channel dedicated to the Carnaval de Salvador, the second-largest Carnival celebration in Brazil. Musical performances, Brazilian dancing and more can be viewed here.

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