In a last show of frivolity before Lent, the National Cathedral hosted their 13th annual pancake race. Braving the cold weather and sharp wind, cathedral members and students from nearby schools lined up to compete for prizes ranging from golden skillets to the grand prize, a golden syrup bottle.
“It’s part of the culture of our church,” said Patricia Cormaney, a volunteer with the cathedral. “Other countries and places celebrate with carnival, but this is our way of having fun before Lent.”
Spirits were high at the races and spectators enjoyed watching competitors make several wild dives to catch pancakes. To win, competitors had to successfully flip their pancake three times and cross the finish line first. Dropping a pancake meant facing either a five second penalty, or reciting a short poem.
Pancake racing may seem odd, but there is a rich history behind this 600-year-old tradition. In the days leading up to Lent, pancakes were commonly cooked because they use many of the rich ingredients that church members give up during fasting such as dairy, meat, and sugar.
According to legend, ‘Pancake Day’ started in Britain in the small town of Olney. A woman focused on baking pancakes for Shrove Tuesday lost track of time. When she heard the church bells ringing and calling everyone to service, in her hurry to make it, she ran out of the house, skillet in hand, and dashed to the church. In subsequent years the townspeople embraced this as tradition, and in the village there continue to be annual pancake races on the day before Ash Wednesday. In Olney however, instead of a golden skillet, the prize is a kiss of peace from the bell ringer.
Not all British towns, however, celebrate with pancake races. “We just eat pancakes, we don’t do anything like this at West Minister Abby,” said Canon Ralph Godsall, a distinguished guest of the National Cathedral who is visiting from West Minister Abby in London to spend several months with the National Cathedral team. “This is great fun for me and I can’t wait to compete! I’m wearing the cassock I wore at the royal wedding, so I hope it brings me luck.”
Sadly, Godsall was defeated by a fellow clergy member, and did not taste victory. But whether competitors won or lost, all seemed to finish the races in good spirits.