Shrove Tuesday is the common English name for the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The term Shrove comes from the old English verb “to shrive” which means to acknowledge one’s sins, such as in confession, and to perform acts of penitence in order to receive absolution. On Shrove Tuesday, many Christians make a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs they need to repent, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth they especially need to ask God’s help in dealing with. Often they consult on these matters with a spiritual counsellor, or receive shrift.
One of the ways that Christians shrove themselves in preparation for the Lenten season was to rid their households of all fat and meat, items that were traditionally abstained from during Lent. In England, a custom began in which lard was disposed of by cooking dishes that would help to use it all up (rather than wastefully throwing it away). Pancakes used quite a bit of lard. So, Shrove Tuesday became synonymous with pancake suppers. In many English churches, the congregation would gather and hold pancake feasts. Such gatherings were also forbidden during Lent, and the pancake suppers were the last celebrations before the Lenten disciplines began. The English custom was brought to North America by Anglican settlers so that today, almost every Anglican Church holds pancake festivals on Shrove Tuesday.
Throughout the rest of Europe, the day before Ash Wednesday also developed into a day of celebration. In France, the day was known as Mardi Gras. In Italy, Spain, and Portugal the day became known as Carnival. The French term Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and the Italian word Carnival means “to remove meat.” Unlike the Shrove Tuesday tradition of England, however, the Continental celebrations became seasons unto themselves rather than just a single day. These seasons were coterminous with the Epiphany season of the Church calendar. As the season of Epiphany progressed toward the arrival of Lent, the celebrations intensified, culminating on the final day before Ash Wednesday. The Mardi Gras celebration was transplanted to the French colonies in North America, notably Quebec and Louisiana.
Text adapted from South Bear, Shovis Ritualis