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 #8


It has to be remembered that Christmas is not only about the children who are rewarded for being nice. Many countries have stories to encourage all children to be well behaved in the build up to Christmas. In some countries they are told that they will receive something instead of presents, such as coal, or even worse they won’t receive any presents at all. In many parts of the world, the figure of father Christmas has an opposite who deals out punishment to those who misbehave.  In France there is La Pere Fouettard and in Iceland is the Yuletide cat, but a story originating in the Alpine regions of Central Europe has become increasingly popular worldwide in recent years through TV and film. In the German speaking regions of the Alps, on the night before the feast of St Nicholas (6th December), it is said that Krampus pays a visit to all the naughty children of the world.

Front of devil mount (NARC-2E4314).
Front view of devil mount (NARC-2E4314). Copyright: Northamptonshire County Council. License: CC-BY
Horned devil in the style of Krampus (NARC-2E4314).
Horned devil in the style of Krampus (NARC-2E4314). Copyright: Northamptonshire County Council. License: CC-BY

Krampus’ appearance draws heavily on early Christian representations of the devil; covered in fur, two large horns and hooves instead of feet. This mount recorded on the PAS datbase (NARC-2E4314) shows the sort of image that comes to mind when thinking of Krampus. It comes from a toy or vessel, though it is unlikely that it was associated with the folklore of Krampus. In many religions, winter is seen as a time when evil spirits are most active. Many festivals that are celebrated at this time of year involve light, which often originated in a desire to keep away evil spirits. These traditions have since developed into the practices observed today. This can include lighting candles (Hanukkah and Advent) or letting off fireworks (Diwali).

According to the legend of Krampus, children who have been naughty are kidnapped and beaten with ruten (bundles of birch branches). In some towns festivals are held where young adults dress up as Krampus and race through the streets, no doubt fueled by Glühwein, scaring children and adults alike. In recent years this aspect of the festive season has become more and more popular in the United States, with a recent boom in its home country of Austria as well (Basu and Little, 2014). Whether as a means to relieve the stress associated with this time of year or simply as an excuse to scare children, more and more people are choosing to dress up as this Christmas devil.

Reference: Basu, T and Little, B. 2014. Krampus the Christmas Devil Is Coming to More Towns. So Where’s He From? National Geographic online:[Last viewed: 08/12/2015].

Nikolaus and Krampus, by unknown.
Nikolaus and Krampus, by unknown (not stated in the source). License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.