Mardi Gras marks the end of the Carnival season, a period that starts at Epiphany on January 6 and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras, literally “fat Tuesday” in French, is a day for feasting in preparation for the sacrifice and fasting period of Lent, which begins the following day. Celebrations continue into the night of as people engage in eating rich and fatty foods but they must end by midnight.
Two of the more famous carnivals are those of New Orleans in the United States and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil but many European countries have their version. In the Belgian city of Binche, the Mardi Gras festival is one of the most important days of the year and the summit of the Carnival of Binche. Around 1000 Gilles dance throughout the city from morning until past dusk, whilst traditional carnival songs play.The Gilles are costumed marchers. In 2003, the “Carnival of Binche” was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The Nice Carnival is held annually in Nice on the French Riviera. The earliest records establish its existence in 1294 when the Count of Provence, Charles Anjou, wrote that he had passed “the joyous days of carnival.” This may make the Nice Carnival the original carnival celebration.
When I lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania I was introduced to fastnachts. These deep-fried doughnuts of German origin were all that remained after immigration of a very elaborate carnival tradition celebrated in parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Making them was a big deal even in homes of non-German ancestry. They served a similar purpose to the Shrove Tuesday pancakes, using up the fats, butter, sugar and eggs that don’t belong in the fast days of Lent. Shrove Tuesday (also known in Commonwealth countries and Ireland as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake Day) is the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. The specific custom of British Christians eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday dates back several centuries.
Shrove Tuesday is observed as a religious holiday by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists. The consumption of pancakes is a common means of celebrating and using up fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting season begins. This holiday is celebrated 41 days before Easter every year. Shrove Tuesday was once known as a “half-holiday” in Britain. It started at 11:00am with the ringing of a church bell. On Pancake Day, “pancake races” are held in villages and towns across the United Kingdom. The tradition is said to have originated in 1445 when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it to prevent it from burning. The pancake race remains a relatively common festive tradition in the UK, especially England. Participants with frying pans race through the streets tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running. The pancake race at Olney traditionally has women contestants who carry a frying pan and race over a 415-yard course to the finishing line. The rules are strict: contestants must toss the pancake at the start and the finish, and wear a scarf and apron.
Right now I am far too busy for the distractions of carnival. Making and eating a batch of fastnachts all by myself is neither practical nor healthy. They really need to be eaten right after they are done to be at their best, that’s why we always got together in groups to make them. Also, they are made with a yeast dough, do they need a lot of rising and kneading time. Pancakes, however, do not, and can be done in batches fit for an individual and are always a fun food and can turn any day into a celebration.