Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. For Brits, it’s better known as Pancake Day. Some expats in the Netherlands keep up their Pancake Day traditions, but in the Netherlands they are the last days of Carnaval. What do the Dutch do to celebrate?

Pancake Day = Shrove Tuesday

Growing up in the UK, there was no doubt in my mind that Shrove Tuesday was a special day because it was Pancake Day. Pancake Day with capital letters, because that was the only day of the year we ate pancakes, so it was a Very Important Day. And there was also no suggestion of eating them with anything else but lemon juice and granulated sugar inside, rolled up with more lemon and sugar added on top. My mother always made them individually in the kitchen then delivered them one by one to each of us in turn until we were so stuffed we couldn’t eat any more. I have no idea what she ate herself because she’s allergic to eggs. I didn’t notice details like that when I was a child, but now I’m a mother myself with 3 children and a husband to feed as well as myself, I’m acutely aware of how long it takes to cook pancakes and how quickly they disappear. In fact, I’m known for burning things in frying pans, so I used to delegate the difficult part to my husband and concentrated on the eating part. I’m rather good at that!

British expat tradition

Needless to say, this is one British tradition our family has imported to Holland even though nobody would notice here if we did or didn’t celebrate it. It’s not as if my children will be disappointed at school the next day when the rest of the class turns out to have had pancakes and only their mother has forgotten. So no motherly guilt trips there. Except on social media if I discovered my British friends had remembered and I hadn’t. Eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday does not seem to be a Dutch tradition, even though one of my Dutch friends did post a photo on Facebook of a bacon pancake that she eats every year. She wasn’t sure if this was a local tradition, a family tradition or if everybody does it and we came to the conclusion it was a family tradition. I have also noticed more Dutch people posting pancake pictures on Pancake Day because they have picked up on the idea online, but pancake-eating is not a Shrove Tuesday tradition in the Netherlands. I will write more about Dutch pancakes in a future blog post.

Pancake races and egg and spoon races

Another British tradition involving pancakes is a pancake race where people run a certain distance holding a frying pan and tossing the pancake into the air along the way. To be honest, I can’t remember ever seeing a pancake race while I lived in England, but it was a fun activity to add to our children’s Easter egg hunt for the expat club a few years ago. The local supermarket sells ready-made pancakes that were ideal as they’re a bit more robust than homemade and I didn’t feel like I was having to spend hours in the kitchen just to end up with inedible pancakes covered in grass. We also kept the children busy with an egg and spoon race. Like pancakes, hard-boiled eggs are also available ready-cooked at the supermarket around Easter time, often dyed in spring colours to add to the festive enjoyment and photogenic delights of 3-year-olds who haven’t quite got the idea.

Dutch Shrove Tuesday – Vastenavond / Vette Dinsdag

Pancake Day is only celebrated in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In the Netherlands, Tuesday marks the last day of Carnaval. At midnight, the party finishes and Ash Wednesday starts, the first day of Lent, Vastentijd, the days of fasting before Easter. The usual name in Dutch for the Tuesday is Vastenavond, the eve of Lent; here you see how Dutch avond is used in the same way as eve is used in English to mean the day before an important festival (as in Christmas Eve, All Hallows’ Eve). Other places call this day Vette dinsdag (fat Tuesday, fat in the sense of greasy) – the translation of Mardi Gras in Brazil and southern Europe. In Noord-Holland (including Amsterdam), the name is dikke dinsdag (fat in the sense of overweight). In Limburg the whole carnival period is called vastelaovend, just a dialect way of saying vastenavond, so another name is needed for the last day, and pragmatic as ever, this is lèsten daag vanne vastelaovend, i.e. last day of carnaval. Whatever it’s called, the common thread is using up the rich and fatty food before the time of fasting during Lent.

Dutch Shrove Tuesday traditions

Some places have a particular ceremony to mark the end of the carnival period, when control is symbolically passed back to the major of the town. In Elst (Gelderland) an effigy of the most stupid person in Elst is hung from the town hall during the Carnival period, the Döppert. This is taken down at midnight on Vastenavond. Meanwhile, in Wijchen, carnival association De Wozokotten burns an effigy of the Woeziks Jupke at midnight (Woezik being the name of the local area, formerly its own village). Again, a tradition I want to come back to in another blog post next year.

Ash Wednesday and Lent / Aswoensdag en Vastentijd

On the day after Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, it is a Catholic tradition to go to church where the priest draws a cross on people’s heads with ashes. This is celebrated throughout the Catholic world, so is not specifically Dutch. It is also a the first day of Lent, a time of fasting, and this is one of the days when all Catholics are supposed to attend Mass, without eating anything first. A Dutch friend told me a funny story, saying that when she was young and celebrating carnival in a bar, they (or perhaps the barman) used to make crosses on people’s forehead with ashes from the ash trays.

I also discovered that Lent doesn’t last 40 days, as I thought, but 47. The extra 7 days are the Sundays during Lent. Sunday is counted as a Feast Day, not as part of the fasting time at all, so meat is allowed. Hence, roast beef on Sundays. In any case, fasting in the western Christian church is different to the Muslim month of Ramadan, for example, where nobody is supposed to eat between sunrise and sunset. In the medieval Christian church, fasting meant eating normally, but no meat or eggs were allowed. In more recent times, people would give up alcohol, chocolates and sweets. Many people who are no longer practising Christians nevertheless continue the practice of giving up something for Lent. Probably the most modern version of this is giving up Facebook or internet or television.

So what do the Dutch eat on Shrove Tuesday?

It seems like there is not one particular traditional way to celebrate Shrove Tuesday in the Netherlands. In the Roman Catholic parts of the country that celebrate carnival, it’s often simply known as carnavalsdinsdag, carnival Tuesday, and there doesn’t seem to be a church ceremony attached. There are food traditions related to the end of carnival, though.

Boerenkool, or curly kale is one of the meals that is traditionally eaten during Dutch carnival. It is usually chopped fine, boiled and mashed together with potatoes, then served with smoked sausage (Gelderse worst) and gravy, sometimes with fatty bacon bits added for good measure. A good solid meal to keep you going through the strenuous time of carnival and a good coating for your stomach if you’re going to be drinking a lot of beer! I’ve also discovered that a wreath made of boerenkool is hung around the neck of a statue of Amadeiro XVI in Den Bosch when the current Prins Carnaval arrives at the station. There is a similar tradition in Maastricht where a statue of an old market woman, ‘t Mooswief, is decorated with a wreath made of kale and other vegetables. In many places, the boerenkool meal is served during or after the annual Boerenbruiloft (fake farmer’s wedding ceremony). In others it is the last meal of carnival time.

Herring – Haring happen
On Ash Wednesday, after receiving a cross of ashes on the forehead at church, the tradition is haring happen, eating herring, presumably by suspending it above your head and lowering it down into your mouth in the time-honoured tradition. I have never participated, so I can’t enlighten you further. Salted or pickled herring is apparently often distributed free at the end of carnival by cafés to thank the people who’ve been there all through carnival. Given that Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the time of fasting, you’d think herring would be on the ‘forbidden’ list, but that’s the reason it is the traditional food on this day because fish isn’t counted as meat. It’s amazing the loopholes people manage to make to get around restrictions and rules, isn’t it? It’s a loophole I use myself as I’m a vegetarian who eats fish, in other words a pescatarian; as a Brit, I found I couldn’t face the odd indulgence of fish and chips.

Collecting for charity – Vastenactie

Another feature of Lent in the Netherlands is the Vastenactie that many primary schools take part in, a project for Lent that teaches children about poverty and encourages them to save their pocket money to donate to charity. The children often have to make a little paper moneybox to collect their pocket money, and some are competitive enough to go door-to-door collecting, though this is not encouraged by the schools themselves. During the project weeks, the children learn about whichever country has been nominated that year, with lessons concentrating on the lives of children and how different they are from their own. I remember doing something similar when I went to Sunday school as a child. The limited 40-day period (or 47 – see above) is an ideal time both to exercise some restraint and to encourage children to do something charitable.

Food and festivals go hand in hand, even when they’re linked to giving up certain foods and fasting. Does your country have special foods for Lent or a feast just before a period of fasting? I’d love to know.