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Tossing the Pancake - March 2011

This year, Shrove Tuesday falls on 8th March. Christians were expected to go to confession in the week before the penitential period of Lent and Shrove Tuesday is the last day before Ash Wednesday (i.e. the first day of Lent). To shrive (the verb from which the past participle shrove is derived) means to obtain absolution but Shrove Tuesday can be thought of as a day of high spirits before entering a more sombre mood.

Of course, many people will know Shrove Tuesday by its more colloquial name of Pancake Day and in this guise, it is thought of more as a day of feasting on those ingredients which are prohibited during Lent, a time of fasting. In fact, the names given to the day in other countries often translate as Fat Tuesday.

From the Twelfth Century, Shrove Tuesday celebrations often incorporated games of 'mob football' but the Highway Act of 1835 banned the playing of football on public highways and the tradition died out in all but a few towns, including Alnwick (Northumberland) and Sedgefield (Co. Durham). Pancake races have proved to be a more enduring tradition. Since the mid-Fifteenth Century, entrants have run towards a finishing line, tossing their pancakes into the air as they go, and catching them in frying pans. The tradition is said to have originated with a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire who was so engrossed in making pancakes that she lost track of time and, on the peal of the church bells calling people to service, she rushed out of the house still carrying her pancake and pan.

This cartoon is from The Comic Almanack by the English artist, caricaturist and book illustrator, George Cruikshank (1792-1878). Cruikshank was renowned for his humorous drawings, satirical political cartoons and social caricatures of English life. He is considered to have been one of the most important British graphic artists of the Nineteenth Century and was undoubtedly one of the most popular cartoonists of his day.

The Comic Almanack, published annually from 1835, contained amusing stories, poems, jokes and cartoons. The illustrations were chiefly Cruikshank's and he engaged others such as the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray to supply the stories. The Almanack was a hugely successful publication, although competition from Punch's Almanack, which began in December 1844, eventually led to its demise.

The Comic Almanack: an ephemeris in jest and earnest, containing merry tales, humorous poetry, quips and oddities. By Thackeray, Albert Smith, Gilbert A. Beckett, the Brothers Mayhew, with many hundred illustrations by George Cruikshank and other artists. 1st [-2nd] series, 1835[-1853].
19th Century Collection 827.89 COM