It’s Pancake Day!

Have you ever wondered why we eat pancakes at the start of Lent? I was always told that it was because they were a good way of using up all the good food before the Lent fast, when  you weren’t supposed to eat things like meat or wine. I’ve always been baffled as to why the using-up meal wasn’t a roast dinner (or at least a meaty stew or pie). Why have an abstemious vegetarian dish which would have been perfectly acceptable in Lent?

In fact my last blog post, about Candlemas, may give the answer – and it seems it’s not the ingredients that are important, it’s the colour and the shape of the pancake. Candlemas rituals are all to do with the end of winter, and in some parts of Europe pancakes are cooked at this feast, because their round golden shape is thought to symbolise the returning sun. In the UK we have moved Pancake Day to Shrove Tuesday, the start of Lent, although this year Shrove Tuesday falls only eleven days after Candlemas.

What about a PAS record for Pancake Day? How about these two objects (WILT-E20CC5 and LON-A6B625): 17th- or 18th-century toy frying pans. Ironically, these tiny toys survive much better than the full-size originals, which would have contained valuable metal and so were probably recycled rather than discarded. They show the kind of shallow circular frying pan in which a pancake could have been cooked a few hundred years ago.

Toy frying pans from Zeal, Wiltshire (WILT-E20CC5) and Tower Hamlets, London (LON-A6B625)
Toy frying pans from Zeal, Wiltshire (WILT-E20CC5) and Tower Hamlets, London (LON-A6B625).

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas countdown #2

חנוכה – Hanukkah

Many religions celebrate festivals during the winter period. It is a time when the days are shortest and people tend to stay indoors to avoid the cold. Of course winter occurs at different points in the calendar in different parts of the world, so many festivals that are celebrated worldwide will not necessarily take place during winter. Nonetheless, religions originating in the Northern Hemisphere tend to have festivals at some point between October and February, as it is at this point that the northern hemisphere is pointed away from the sun and the shortest days are experienced.

Hanukkah menorah
Hanukkah menorah by Ilya Krivoruk Pikiwiki Israel. License: CC-BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Many winter festivals use light as a focus for the practices that are observed, often to combat the darkness throughout the winter months. One such holiday is Hanukkah. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins at the 25th day of Kislev, and concludes on the 2nd or 3rd day of Tevet of the Jewish calendar. Due to differences with the Gregorian calendar, this date varies from one year to the next in the Western world. This year (2015) Hanukkah began at sunset on the 6th December and ends today, on the 14th. The festival is in memory of the miracle that occurred during the rededication of the “Second Temple” in Jerusalem, c. 165 BC. There was only enough oil for one day found within the temple, but the oil managed to last for eight days. This gave enough time for more kosher oil to be produced for use in the temple. Thus it was decreed that an eight day festival would take place to celebrate this event. Today people light one candle on the menorah (nine branched candleholder) each day, with a single candle burning throughout the entire festival to commemorate the eight day miracle.

One common practice throughout the holiday is to spin a dreidel, like the example pictured below (IOW-918A57). The game involves placing markers, often chocolate coins, in a “pot” with each letter on the dreidel corresponding to a particular action. The actions have changed throughout time, but the basic idea is that this is a game of chance, where you could lose all your tokens or gain a lot more. Several of these small lead dreidels have been found across the UK and recorded with the PAS.

Lead dreidel (IOW-918A57)
Lead dreidel (IOW-918A57). Copyright: Isle of Wight Council. License: CC-BY