Shrove Tuesday is the last day before the fasting period of Lent in Western Christian churches. On Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday, people in many countries celebrate Carnival, bake pancakes, and prepare themselves for 40 days of fasting before the most important festival in the Christian Church: Easter.
What Does Shrove Mean?
The word shrove means being absolved from sin through confession and penance.
Shrove comes from the Latin word for “writing” (scribere); the English Church used the word for writing down rules (scrifan) to mean “absolving sinners” (shrive).
Shrove Tuesday is the time for Christians to prepare for absolution by confessing to their priest and by fasting or renouncing comforts for the 40 days of Lent, starting on Ash Wednesday.
Before the Lenten fasting, people traditionally use up ingredients they are not allowed to eat during the next 40 days—especially ingredients that would spoil, like eggs and milk.
A great way to use up these ingredients is baking pancakes and waffles. That is how Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, became known as Pancake Day or Fat Tuesday.
Food Traditions on Shrove Tuesday
Pancakes became a traditional dish in the UK and the US. Other countries have their own food traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday, for example:
Crêpes and Waffles in France
Pea soup and blinis in Finland
Almond Buns or semlor in Sweden
Filled Doughnuts or pączki in Poland
Omelets or tortillas in Spain
The Meaning of Lent & Fasting
The time before Easter is called Lent (from old English lencten = spring season).
During the 40 days of Lent, many Christians fast or at least quit luxuries and temptations, such as alcohol, smoking, or social media.
Fasting or renouncing temptation is thought to help Christians focus on the coming Holy Week of Easter. It’s said to be a “spring cleaning of the soul.”
The fasting period always counts 40 days, but it might last longer than that: Roman Catholics follow Lent from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday (44 days), but exclude Sundays, which makes 40 days of fasting.
For many Protestants like Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians, Lent lasts 46 calendar days, ending on Holy Saturday. They also exclude Sundays, so Lent still is 40 days.
What Is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” in French. Fat Tuesday is simply another name for Shrove Tuesday, referring to the last use of fat before Lent.
Mardi Gras can also mean the Carnival parades in New Orleans and other cities in current and former French-speaking territories.
Carnival is celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, Shrove Monday, and the weekend before. The word is said to come from the simplified Latin “carne levare” or “carne vale” (goodbye, meat!).
The days of Carnival were traditionally for eating meat before putting it away for the fasting season. Carnival was also the last time for “pleasures of the flesh,” such as dancing, drinking, and other connected activities, before the time of Lent.
Another possible origin for the word carnival is the Latin word “carrus navalis,” a colorful wooden boat people carried through the streets during an old spring celebration. These boats, or “parade floats,” as they are called today, still are an essential part of Carnival celebrations today.
Different Observances: West and East
If and how Christians celebrate Shrove Tuesday depends on their denomination: Western Christian churches like Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Shrove Tuesday as described above.
Eastern Christian churches like the Eastern Orthodox do not celebrate Shrove Monday, Shrove Tuesday, or Ash Wednesday, because they follow the Julian Calendar. Instead, the Eastern Orthodox Christians start their fasting on Clean Monday.