Ash Wednesday: marking the start of Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, when Christians traditionally burn crosses made on Palm Sunday

LAST UPDATED AT 08:23 ON Wed 5 Mar 2014

ASH WEDNESDAY marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection before Easter.

It dates from the eighth century, according to New Advent, and is traditionally marked by the burning of palm crosses made on the previous year's Palm Sunday. In the Catholic church, the priest then mixes the ashes with holy water and, with his thumb, uses them to make the mark of the cross on the forehead of each member of the congregation.

According to the International Business Times, the custom of giving up something for Lent is not a requirement of most branches of Christianity.

"While it’s encouraged by some Christian denominations to give up something for the duration of Lent, it is by no means an obligation, at least for Catholics," the website reports. "Aside from abstaining from meat on Fridays during lent, and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics are not required or forced to give up anything on Ash Wednesday or the duration of Lent."

Pancake Day: a feast based on traditions of self-denial 

4 March

PANCAKE DAY, or Shrove Tuesday, is a Christian celebration that falls on the eve of Lent, a 40-day period of penance through fasting.

Outside the UK it is celebrated as Mardi Gras or Carnival, which attract millions of party-goers onto the streets of Europe and the Americas every year.

History of Pancake Day

Shrove Tuesday’s name comes from the old middle-English verb “to shrive”, which means to confess one’s sins. During the Middle Ages Christians would go to church before midday on Shrove Tuesday and ask God for absolution before the start of Lent.

Shrove Tuesday also gave Christians the opportunity to feast on all the indulgent foods that were prohibited during Lent. Pancakes were made to use up butter and eggs, considered luxuries at the time.

How is the date determined?

Pancake Day comes 40 days before Easter Sunday, which means it can fall on any date between 3 February and 9 March. This year it is on Tuesday, 4 March — unusually late, due to this year's late Easter.

Here are the dates for the next five years:

2015 — 17 February
2016 — 9 February
2017 — 28 February
2018 — 13 February
2019 — 5 March

UK traditions

The pancake race: While most people are content to eat pancakes, some also use them for sport. Pancake races, in which participants race down streets flipping a pancake in a frying pan, are held in towns and villages throughout the UK.

The tradition is said to have originated in Olney, Berkshire, where the earliest recorded race was in 1445. The story goes that a housewife was so busy making pancakes that when the church bells rang for the Shrove Tuesday service that she ran out of the house, frying pan and half-cooked pancake still in hand.

Shrovetide football: Shrovetide, or mob football, is not for the faint-hearted. It is thought to have emerged in Europe in the Middle Ages and is still played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

It involves an unlimited number of players on each team trying to move a large ball towards the goal by any means possible. The Ashbourne game is played over two days, starting each day at 2pm and finishing at 10pm.

The rules give a taste of the combative spirit in which the game is played:

  •  Murder and manslaughter are prohibited, while unnecessary violence is frowned upon.
  •  The ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle.
  •  The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat or rucksack, etc.
  •  Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds.

Nor is mob football the only violent practice associated with Shrove Tuesday: until the 18th century, cock fights were also held to celebrate Pancake Day, according to the Daily Express.

Mardi Gras

From Italy to Brazil, Mardi Gras and Carnival have become synonymous with masks, costumes, dancing and huge parades. The French name Mardi Gras translates into English as Fat Tuesday, which once again refers to the consumption of fatty foods before the start of Lent.

Mardi Gras is celebrated in several European countries, including Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Sweden, but the biggest celebrations now take place in the Americas.


Mardi Gras celebrations are believed to have begun in the US in 1699 after two French explorers landed in what is now known as Louisiana. The explorers held a small celebration and dubbed the landing spot Point du Mardi Gras.

New Orleans now plays host to the largest celebrations, attracting millions of people every year. A number of other cities in the US, especially those with French or Spanish heritage, also celebrate the holiday.


The Brazilian Carnival, by far the biggest holiday in the country, runs for five days in the run-up to Shrove Tuesday. Rio de Janeiro’s event attracts almost five million people and, as a whole, Carnival attracts 70 per cent of the country’s annual visitors.

Nevertheless, this festival also derives from a tradition of abstention: the word carnival comes from the old Italian carnelevare, which means ‘to remove meat’.

Pancake recipe

For perfect pancakes, Delia Smith recommends using:

110g plan flour
A pinch of salt
2 eggs
200ml milk mixed with 75ml water
50g butter for the pan

Whisk up the flour, eggs and salt, and then add the liquid gradually, whisking until you have a smooth batter. Lightly butter a heavy pan and then cook the pancakes until they are golden brown.

Pancake tips

The Guardian suggests its readers look around the world for more adventurous pancake toppings: "luscious dulce de leche in Argentina, butter and sugar on a German schmarren, bacon and melted gouda on Dutch pannenkoeken".

But it also acknowledges the appeal of a more traditional approach. "If your batter ingredients are good enough," it suggests, "you may wish to enhance, rather than disguise, the taste of your pancakes – which is where the British love of lemon and sugar comes in."

Meanwhile, The Independent pitches its advice at a more basic level. "Try to get any guests or family members to be elsewhere" when you start flipping pancakes, it suggests, "and clean the floor thoroughly beforehand". · 

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