Saturday, 23 February 2013

Fastern's Eve

While this is a week overdue (and then some) you can still feel free to commiserate and feel sorry for me, dear reader, for I'm about to reminisce in a misty-eyed fashion about my horribly deprived childhood. Yes. Poor me.

It was horribly deprived, you see, because we were only allowed pancakes once a year. This, I think you'll agree, was a terrible travesty - for what else embodies all that is good and yummy in the world than the humble and versatile pancake?

Certainly The Church agrees with me, apparently.

Yes, as a kid there was just one day in the year when my family would have pancakes (and when I say pancakes I'm talking about the thin crepe-like pancakes that are common here, not the kind of pancakes we would call "American pancakes," or other nummy versions like drop scones or pikelets), and that was on Shrove Tuesday - the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.

So as a kid, Shrove Tuesday was a Big Deal. I wasn't raised religiously so the pancakes were very much part of a very secular tradition and Lent never meant all that much to me beyond having a vague idea that the Easter Bunny was on the horizon. And something to do with palm trees at some point? But sod the chocolate: Shrove Tuesday heralded a day of deliciousness served with lemon, sugar and butter, and dad trying to flip a pancake onto the ceiling so it would stick.

As an adult I now have the luxury of making pancakes whenever I like (so there, mother *blows raspberry*). And while I'm still not Christian and nor is my husband, there was a unanimous demand for pancakes in the Seren household last Tuesday because It's Traditional, Damnit. Who am I to deprive my loved ones of tasty goodness? Or deny time-honoured traditions their rightful place?

So pancakes there were.

It's a tradition that might seem a bit odd - whether it's observed as part of a religious context, or a secular one like I've always experienced it. But when you look into its origins it does kind of make sense even though my experience of them has been fuck it, PANCAKES.

It came up on the Gaelic Polytheism group a while back, so I figured that even though it's not particularly relevant to the average polytheist, it's still worth looking at from a cultural perspective. And any excuse for me to waffle on about something, right?

So in the traditional sense it all comes from the idea of penitence. "Shrove" is the past tense for shrive - striving for absolution and repentance - so in that sense the day heralds the start of the Lenten period which focuses on that kind of thing as Easter approaches. Along with penitence, lots of Christians these days tend to give something up for Lent - a vice or luxury, something that represents self-sacrifice. This comes from the traditional fasting that most Christians would have observed from around the Middle Ages onwards - eschewing the enjoyment of rich foods like meat, dairy, and anything sweet. So pancakes - being delicious and made of just the kinds of things that wouldn't be allowed during Lent - were just the thing for Shrove Tuesday, allowing one last chance to enjoy rich foods, as well as providing the opportunity to use up the ingredients.

In parts of Scotland, because Scotland always has to be different, Shrove Tuesday was traditionally better known as Fastern's Eve (or "Fastren's" Eve) - "Fastern" meaning "Fasting." Here the pancakes would be drop scones or sauty bannocks - drop scones made with a little oatmeal and salt added. When the pancakes were to be made the family would gather round the hearth, and one person would make the batter, one person would pour it out onto the girdle, and another person would turn the pancake to cook the other side, and then whoever the pancake was for would get to enjoy it however they liked - with a bit of butter and jam, perhaps.

The last pancake was special, and might be used for divination games. The Easter period was traditionally the time for marriages, so those who were coming up to the age when thoughts were turning to settling down might make a special bannock to take to bed with them - the "dreaming bannock," or "sauty bannock." The bannock would have a little oatmeal added to thicken it, a lot of salt, and sometimes even soot to discolour it, like these (minus the soot):

It was supposed to be made in absolute silence, and then a little bit was eaten before the rest was placed under the pillow. No drink should be taken (the ensuing thirst during sleep presumably inducing the sort of uncomfortable sleep that would make vivid dreams more likely), and the person was supposed to dream of their future spouse.

In a group, a similar kind of pancake might be made - again thickened with oatmeal and well-salted - with charms added to it. Whoever was in charge of baking the pancake had to do it in absolute silence, and everyone else present would make a great game of trying to make the baker break their silence. If they did, someone else would take over the baking, and so on. The pancake would then be broken into pieces and placed in the pocket of the gudewife's apron. She was then blindfolded and would pick out a piece of the pancake and would cry out, ‘Wha owns this?’ until someone claimed it. The charm contained in the piece was supposed to indicate the kind of person the recipient would end up marrying - a bawbee (a halfpenny) indicated a bachelor; a farthing, a widower; a button, a tailor; a piece of straw, a farmer; a piece of cloth, a clothier; a nail, a blacksmith. Apparently this is still a thing in parts of Newfoundland but I've never heard of anyone doing it round here. The kids are a little young to be particularly fussed about who they might, if at all, so I've not done it, but it's all very reminiscent of the Samhainn crowdie.

So...that's Fastern's Eve in a nutshell.