In the Christian calendar, the three days before Lent were known as Shrovetide, taking their name from ‘shrive’ or confess. Lent being the longest and strictest fast, however, has given to Shrovetide the character of being the last chance for good food and unrestricted fun before the long period of austerity starting with Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter. Shrovetide thus became second only to Christmas for its frivolity, or, as William Kethe commented in 1571 ‘Great gluttony, surfeiting and drunkenness’ (A Sermon Made at Blandford Forum, quoted by Hutton, 1996: 152).
The three days were generally known as Shrove Sunday, Collop Monday, and Shrove Tuesday. Collop Monday took its name from the habit of eating collops, or cuts of meat fried or boiled. It made sense to eat up any meat still remaining in the house, as it would be banned from the Wednesday. Similarly, on Shrove Tuesday, other perishable foodstuffs were used up, and although there were regional variations, these were usually eaten in the form of pancakes. While Shrovetide now passes unnoticed by any but a dwindling number of religious families, Pancake Day still means something to millions of English people, and to lemon growers and importers. The first known mention of pancakes is by William Warner in Albions England (1586), as ‘Fast-even pan-puffs’ (quoted by Hutton, 1996: 152). The term ‘Fast-even’ (meaning the evening before the fast) long survived in the north of England as a synonym for Shrove Tuesday.
The pancake-making was not left to chance, but in many areas was signalled by a church bell being rung, at eleven o'clock or twelve o'clock, which obviously became known as the pancake bell. This was the signal for families to start cooking. If John Taylor (1621) is to be believed, some sextons rang the bell as early as nine o'clock. Modern pancake races are said, completely without foundation, to date from a custom whereby housewives would vie with each other to make the first pancake and race to the sexton to prove it. The pancake bell survived in many places till late in the 19th century (Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 13–15).
A number of other customs and activities also became particularly associated with Shrovetide, especially football, cock-fighting, and throwing at cocks. Even after the Reformation removed much of the importance of Lent, and therefore Shrovetide as a religious observance, Shrove continued to be known for its excesses. In urban areas, it was particularly the day for apprentices to let their hair down, and their behaviour became proverbial—‘They presently (like prentices upon Shrove-Tuesday) take the lawe into their owne handes and do what they list’ (Dekker, Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606), 35). Each of these active customs was eventually suppressed, although many not until the 19th century.
In many parts of the country, children went Shroving, a standard visiting custom whereby they sang a song or recited a rhyme and hoped to be rewarded with food or money:Knock, knock, the pan's hotAnd we are coming a-shrovingFor a piece of pancakeOr a piece of baconOr a piece of truckle cheeseOf your own making(Hampshire, Folk-Lore 22 (1911), 323)