The Holidays Celebrated In Colonial America

Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras

{ 47 Days Before Easter }

  The second day of Shrove~Tide, the week preceeding Lent, was known as Shrove Tuesday. During the Colonial Period, this Tuesday was often known as Pancake Tuesday.

  In anticipation of having to refrain from eating meat throughout the Lenten season, the week prior to Lent was spent indulging in feasting. And whereas Monday's breakfast meal was traditionally collops and eggs, Tuesday's breakfast meal was pancakes. The tradition states that prior to Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, all of the staples in the house had to be eaten or otherwise gotten rid of. Pancakes were the perfect food to use up the eggs, milk, sugar and butter.

  One tradition states that because of the fact that people would stuff themselves full of the food that they would be denied during Lent, this Tuesday during the week before Lent was also sometimes known as Fat Tuesday. Other traditions maintain that the name is derived from the fact that along with the other items being used up prior to Lent, would be the fat used in cooking (such as bacon drippings).

  In French, the name for Tuesday is Mardi, and the French term for 'fat' is gras, therefore Fat Tuesday became translated into Mardi Gras.

  In some regions, Pancake Tuesday would be celebrated by the running of "pancake races" in which contestants would hold a griddle in one hand, flipping a pancake in it, all the while running the races. Points would be awarded (or deducted) according to the skill with which the pancakes were flipped and caught and the number of times such could be accomplished before reaching the finish line.

  Despite the fact that Shrove Tuesday is a religious holiday, celebrations in some cities, such as Rio De Janiero, Trinidad and New Orleans, have evolved into sensual, sometimes sexually vulgar, parties that have become known as Carnival (derived either from the Latin phrase: carne~vale, meaning "farewell to meat" or from the Latin phrase: carne~levare, meaning "to take up flesh/meat"). But that does not mean that giving oneself over to abandon is a recent aspect of the holiday. The anticipation of the upcoming austere season of lent motivated our Colonial ancestors to indulge in merrymaking that would have been frowned upon any other time.

  A curious custom of Shrove Tuesday was it being a day for cock-fighting and "throwing at cocks". Men and boys would engage in the savage sport on this day, if on no other day. Its origins were believed to be found in ancient Athenian culture, but a tradition existed in England that the crowing of a cock prevented the Saxons from massacreing their Danish conquerors on a Shrove Tuesday. The magazine, British Apollo of 1708 noted that the "throwing at cocks" on Shrove Tuesday came about when a number of Saxon men, weary of being ruled by the Danes, came up with a plan to murder their local Danish lord and his family during the wee hours of one Shrove Tuesday, but as they were beginning that undertaking the cock crowed, awakening the Danish household, and the plan was foiled. The outcome of the failed plot was that the Danes increased their cruelty toward the Saxons, who in turn took their anger out on the cocks that had ruined their plans.

  The phrase throwing at cocks was explained by a writer in 1791: "The owner of the cock trains his bird for some time before Shrove Tuesday and throws a stick at him himself, in order to prepare him for the fatal day, by accustoming him to watch the threatened danger, and by springing aside, avoid the fatal blow. He holds the poor victim on the spot marked out by a cord fixed to his leg, at the distance of nine or ten yards, so as to be out of the way of the stick himself. Another dpot is marked at the distance of twenty-two yards, for the person who throws to stand upon. He has three shys, or throws, for twopence, and wins the cock if he can knock him down and run up and catch him before the bird recovers his legs. The inhuman pastime does not end with the cock's life, for when killed it is put into a hat, and won a second time by the person who can strike it out. Broomsticks are generally used to shy with. The cock, if well trained, eludes the blows of his cruel persecutors for a long time, and thereby clears to his master a considerable sum of money."

  The Newcastle Courant, for 15 March 1783 noted an outcome of the Shrove Tuesday practice of throwing at cocks by reporting on an incident that took place at Leeds: "Tuesday se'nnight, being Shrove-tide, as a person was amusing himself along with several others, with the barbarous custom of throwing at a cock, at Howden Clough, near Birstall, the stick pitched upon the head of Jonathan Speight, a youth about thirteen years of age, and killed him on the spot."

  After they were finished with the cock fighting and throwing at cocks, the boys would throw small stones at the doors of neighboring houses, demanding pancakes in payment to stop.

  Many holidays were used to foretell the weather, and Shrove Tuesday was no different. Shepherd's Almanack for February, 1676 noted that: "Some say thunder on Shrove Tuesday foretelleth wind, store of fruit and plenty. Others affirm, that so much as the sun shineth that day, the like will shine every day in Lent."