Janis Greenbaum at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO, has provided a nice, short explanation of Shrove Tuesday:
Historically, Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving, when the faithful confessed their sins to the local priest and received forgiveness before the Lenten season began.
Shrove Tuesday also marked the beginning of the 40-day Lenten fasting period when the faithful were forbidden by the church to consume meat, butter, eggs or milk. However, if a family had a store of these foods, they would all go bad by the time the fast ended on Easter Sunday.
What to do?
Use up the milk, butter and eggs no later than Shrove Tuesday. And so, with the addition of a little flour, the solution quickly presented itself in… pancakes! And lots of ‘em!
The tradition is most associated in the UK where it is simply known as Pancake Day.
In France (as well as here in the U.S. — most famously New Orleans), it’s known as Fat Tuesday, which kicks off the Mardi Gras festival with wild celebrations just before the austere Lenten season.