Carnival – English Style

By Dr Monika Smialkowska

If you live in England, you may be forgiven for not noticing that it is carnival time. In the bleak English February, you will be hard pressed to find anything resembling the colourful parades of Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations. At most, you may eat some pancakes or see a pancake race on Shrove Tuesday.[1] The origin of this custom lies in the Christian tradition of observing Lent – the 40-day-long period of fasting before Easter. Shrove Tuesday (now better known as Pancake Day) is the last day before the beginning of Lent, when Catholics would go to church to confess and be absolved of their sins (shriving). People would also have to use up the rich foodstuffs which were forbidden during the time of Lenten abstinence, among them fat, eggs, and dairy – hence the custom of making and eating pancakes. Popular story has it that a woman in the Buckinghamshire town of Olney was making pancakes when she heard the church bells calling to the Shriving service. She ran out of her house with the pan in her hand, tossing the pancake on the way to church, thus initiating the custom of pancake racing, held in that town since 1445 (click here for details).

The winning team of the 2008 Parliamentary Pancake Race. © Reproduced with permission.

Shrove Tuesday customs were the culmination of the carnival season – the period of fun and indulgence, when the restrictive rules of everyday life were lifted.[2] While the precise time frame of carnival varied in different locations, the entire period between Christmas and the beginning of Lent was marked by carnival festivities and customs. Many of those combined Christian and pagan traditions, harking back to agricultural rituals which were intended to chase away winter and bring back spring, ensuring the fertility of livestock and plentiful crops. Some customs, such as ‘cock-throwing’ – the ritual stoning to death of a cock on Shrove Tuesday – directly recalled pagan sacrifices.[3] No wonder that in England many carnival traditions were criticised and suppressed during the Reformation, which aimed to cleanse Christianity of what the Reformers saw as ‘popish superstition’ and remnants of paganism.

However, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the English still celebrated carnival in style. Among the most popular festive pastimes in England were Sword dances, Plough plays and Mummers’ plays. They were performed by fantastically costumed characters, some with blackened faces, some in animal skins, and some men dressed in women’s clothes. Many of these customs involved enacting a fight, in which a character was killed and then miraculously brought back to life – perhaps another echo of pagan sacrifices and fertility rites. In some, St George and the Dragon appeared, while other key characters included a Hobby Horse, Beelzebub, Tommy, Bess (a cross-dressed man), a Turkish Knight, a Madman, a Doctor, Pickle Herring, and many others.[4]

Remnants of these customs survived the Reformation and were further developed and transformed in, among other phenomena, the eighteenth-century masquerade and the Victorian fun fair. Some of them found their way across the Atlantic with waves of English emigrants, where they combined with other cultural influences, resulting in such events as the annual Mummers Parade held on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, PA (see here). English carnival folk customs were revived in the US with particular vigour at the beginning of the twentieth century. Interestingly, a brochure published in 1916 recommended that American schoolchildren should celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death by, among other activities, performing elements of a Plough play and a Mummers’ play.[5] Apparently, these customs represented some version of ‘Englishness’ to Americans at that time. Perhaps they are worth remembering when enjoying your pancakes this Shrove Tuesday!

[1] For the forthcoming pancake races in London this year, see

[2] For the classic account of carnival as the time of communal feasting and overturning of established social hierarchies, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

[3] François Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (1988), trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 48.

[4] For more detailed accounts of these customs, see Laroque and E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903).

[5] The Drama League of America, The Shakespeare Tercentenary: Suggestions for School and College Celebrations of the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s Death in 1916 (Washington, D.C.: National Capital Press [1916]), pp. 36-37.

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