December 1, 2020

The Feast Before the Fast

Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race, National Geographic

“One will have to give account in the judgment day of every good thing which one might have enjoyed and did not.”

• The Talmud

• • •

The seriousness of Lent that begins on Ash Wednesday is preceded on Tuesday each year by a day of frivolousness and indulgence. We feast before we fast.

Yet even the feasting and festivities have traditionally served a purpose. You will note below that the day is often named after various confections. During Lent there are many foods that some Christians — historically and today — do not eat: such as meat, fats, eggs, and milky foods. In order to avoid wasting them, families and communities hold feasts to use them up so they do not go bad over the forty days of Lenten observance. Pancakes and other rich confections developed because these were good ways of using up all the eggs, fats, milk, and sweets in the house with just the addition of flour.

This feast day before Ash Wednesday is known by different names around the world. Here are a few of them:

  • Shrove Tuesday (to shrive = to repent)
  • Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday)
  • Pancake Day
  • Fasnacht Day (a German-American confection)
  • Malasada Day (a Portugese confection)
  • Pączki Day (a Polish confection)
  • Sprengidagur (Iceland: Bursting Day)

One of the venerable traditions on this day is the Pancake Race.

Here’s a link to a story about the most famous race, the one in Olney, England, which is said to have been inaugurated in 1445: Olney Pancake Race History.

And here’s a video of the Great Spitalfields Pancake Race in London, where teams dress up in wacky costumes and race to raise money for charity:

It’s on days like these that we might do well to heed the sage advice of Qoheleth, who said: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” (Eccles. 7:16) Our good friend Robert Farrar Capon teases this out, encouraging us to enjoy Fat Tuesday for all its worth:

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us our soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true folk — to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us — with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection


  1. Capon’s quote reminds me of Babette’s Feast.

  2. Yes – pancakes and lemon juice and maple syrup today (well, this evening) and tomorrow ashes and fish and fast and abstinence and being very, very good going into Lent 🙂

  3. That Other Jean says

    Eat, drink, and be merry. Time enough for tomorrow, tomorrow.

  4. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
    to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
    to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
    Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
    when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
    Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
    then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
    and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
    Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

    “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
    and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
    then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
    The LORD will guide you always;…”
    Isaiah 58

  5. Hi Pastor Mike,
    I appreciate this post because where I’ve lived the past few years, I’ve always wondered why once a year the stores sell donuts and call them “Fasnachts.” But, can I ask “why?” I believe these are man-made traditions. Not that they are wrong nor bad (like much of what happens in the church), but I ask because I am wrestling with traditions. That is, man-made traditions in the church that I followed well but that did not lead me to the real Jesus (no, I found Him real through desperate cries in times of deep suffering). I’m saddened that I didn’t learn to pick up my cross and follow Jesus in all the years I called myself Christian. Yet, I fit in really well then.

    I do not mean any disrespect to anyone or to anyone’s traditions. I’m just curious.


    • A lot of these folk traditions (no church anywhere insists on people making or eating Pacskis) are far more cultural than religious. After all, people in Chicago eat them regardless of religion. I know several former Catholics that enjoy the cultural side effects of their faith.

      • Thanks, cermak_rd. I guess I’m just calling out a folk tradition albeit a yummy, fun one. I think too many man-made traditions led me to think they were the ‘real’ thing when I actually now believe I finally know the real Jesus, i.e. I don’t believe I was His at all in hindsight.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Problem is, Kris, too much of denying “Man Made Traditions (TM)” turns you into a Gnostic waiting for your Soul to be freed of Material Prison into Fluffy Cloud Heaven. Or a Dour Puritan trudging “the gray, grim, hard, joyless path of Salvation.”

      • Hot cross buns!
        Hot cross buns!
        One a penny,
        Two a penny,
        Hot cross buns!
        If you have no daughters,
        Give them to your sons,
        One a penny,
        Two a penny,
        Hot cross buns!

        You shouldn’t eat them before Good Friday/Holy Saturday, but of course with commerical creep (e.g. the way Christmas advertising starts around Hallowe’en), the shops have them in for the start of Lent.

    • Kris ~ I live in Fasnacht country. This is what I have been told about Fasnachts. The word means “fast night” and it comes from the Old Testament when the Jews were to get rid of all the yeast before Passover. The Pennsylvania German people transferred that to all lard or fat to fast over the Lenten period. So they cooked their “doughnuts” in all the lard in order to use it up and not waste it. This was their last “treat” before fasting as well as using up the fat in the house. Tradition. It is strong in my area. One of the local churches who still make the real thing sell hundreds of them and some stores carry the church-baked fasnachts. Personally I do not care for them but I am in the minority.

      The book which Chaplin MIke recommended for this time is excellent. My copy arrived this morning and I really recommend it in order to understand the church year and the practices of the liturgical churches etc. The other stuff, like Fasnacht’s is interesting but not necessary. For some it is a way to honor and obey God, to others it is just a repeated tradition every year.

      • Thank you for taking such time and care to reply, Adrienne. I think I’m in another spiritual crisis—feeling such a disconnect from the Jesus I seek in the red letter of my bible and what I/we do with it. I also love on an internation community where I live (because I speak their language), and after visiting their churches, I’m again wondering “why?” So many friends go in/out, in/out…like I did and still do…but find not the hope of Christ that is peace waiting. Nor are their many who truly seem to seek Jesus in action beyond words. Literally, a woman I know made sure I saw her whenever we went to pray, including laying down under the pews as though she were dead.

        I question why we do what we do…again. Though not specifically hurt by the church, I feel hurt by the lifestyle it gave me with all the right answers, all the good morals, and so much wonderful comforts…but that was not enough when my marriage was in sudden crisis. I would be an atheist, no doubt, if God had not shown Himself real to me from a puddle of tears.

        I don’t mean disrespect at all, really. I just can’t find that Jesus calls me to observe any tradition at all. He wants me to love God, love my neighbors and follow Him with my cross on my back. I have not arrived. NO, I’m more a sinner than I ever thought I was. I’m just struggling with anything done for tradition (no matter how good it feels or what potential it has to lead me to Christ) when for many years, it was the thing that kept me from a life with Him.

        Thank you for your kindness in your response. I hope it was returned. Peace.

  6. How did you get the ‘a’ with tail symbol to render for you? When I tried it yesterday in a post, it was substituted with ?.

    Anyway, yippee for Pacski! My local grocers had a table with them for purchase on it yesterday. They are so much more than a doughnut. The dough is rich with eggs and fat.

  7. We had a good Mardi Gras here today. Crêpes tonight!!!

  8. Overcoming my fat and caloric phobia, I’ve indulged in three slices of blue-berry cream cheese king cake today!!

    Laissez les bons temps rouler!

  9. Is it possible to actually enjoy fasting… I love fish… but maybe I shouldn’t be eating it in such large quantities.

  10. “Competitors place their frying pans around the font and occupy seats reserved for them, and during the service, the presentation of the official prizes from Olney and Liberal USA takes place.”

    I think if an American mega-church pastor did this, IM would have another blog entry about the ‘evangelical circus.’ But in loose connection to the liturgical calendar, suddenly it is a wonderful thing.

    I have nothing against pancakes, or races, or even this event (and I dislike many things about American mega-churchs). In fact, I tried to talk my wife into letting me make pancakes for the kids tonight, before the start of Lent. But, the seemingly differing standard makes my eyebrows arch quizzically.

    • Did you notice that this started in 1445? That it has become part of the very culture of the people and is not just someone’s bright “creative” idea?

      And that this is a community affair, not just a church affair?

      That this is not designed as a half-baked strategy to “grow the church” but to join with our neighbors in a bit of fun for fun’s sake?

      You’re not comparing equivalent things, friend.

  11. I agree these are not equivalent to compare, but is this not tradition if centuries old? Is it not a harmless, silly tradition, that has continued through the ages as a way to welcome a season? And did Jesus tell us to do Lent?

    I’m just a girl struggling with tradition — because following man-made traditions (including the way we “do” church) hurt me in that it led me to believe I was saved and that the sweet, comfortable, life we lived was the blessing received for our devotion. When I didn’t ask “why” and when I didn’t feast on the red letters of Christ in my bible, the entire faith of my youth and everything I learned (much of it also old tradition) was nothing. Nothing at all when I found my good Christian marriage was suddenly a total failure.

    No matter how I write this, it seems my angst and wrestling is apparent. I hope it’s not seasoned with contempt or disrespect. It is not my goal, truly. Peace.

  12. Kris,

    While Jesus didn’t talk about Lent as we know it, he did talk about prayer and fasting. He also came from the Jewish tradition where people did pray, and fast for repentance, for national problems, etc.

    The forty days comes from the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness between His baptism and the start of His ministry.

    I’m sorry that you are hurting. You come across as questioning sincerely.

    May you find the peace that passes understanding

  13. Kris,

    The world is full of badness and phoniness, and things that are corrupt or less than they should be. But when God takes possession of a person something hard to explain, not usually felt, but absolutely undeniable happens. God takes all our failings and trials and sufferings and works them to his own will; this is what Paul described as the life of Christ living in us. Suddenly our sufferings work towards redemption and glory, our doubts become ground for hope to be planted, and our simple joys and pleasures – whether it be watching a sunset, enjoying a football game, eating good food with friends, or participating in a festival – become an echo of God looking at His creation and calling it good. God has no condemnation to those that are in Christ because He takes all of you – even those parts which are full of pain and badness – and works them to greater good than we can yet know.

    And so, when you followed all the traditions before and did not know Christ, those traditions were empty. They became a way for you to deceive yourself and others. I have seen and felt that myself. I have turned from many traditions that I used to hold sacred because of it. But what might those traditions be made into for a person who is in Christ? They might begin to take on sacred colors, to develop meanings and significance they wouldn’t otherwise have. There is nothing inherently good or sacred about traditions. But when one is in Christ, everything – even the traditions – take on a sacred significance.

    Don’t misunderstand. By ‘sacred’ I mean something very different than the wooden-pew misery of the catechism, the holier-than-thou facade of the patently religious. I mean more the simple things God gives us, the pretty snowfalls, the happiness of petting a dog, or throwing back a fine Belgian ale in an old-world chapel. A book, a poem. Sometimes something more profound, but not every day or even every week.

    I’ve taken a new look at different traditions. Sometimes from other branches of the Christian tradition, sometimes from other times and cultures entirely. Some of them have become significant for me, or just a load of fun. Some haven’t, and I don’t practice them. There is no merit in tradition save that which God can show us – whether it be in some ecstatic revelation, or (more commonly) a simple interest, enjoyment, or helpfulness it has for us.

    Look for God in all places and you begin to see He is absent nowhere – not in a feast, a fast, a stretch of sky or even in the stifled old churches that drive so many hearts into the mire, where He is a hand stretching down to pull you up, a breath of fresh air, or a rolling bellyful of laughter that breaks all pretensions.