The History of Pancake Day in Newfoundland

Who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner? Imagine sitting around the kitchen table, conversations flying between family members while eating piles of pancakes — suddenly, a thimble is discovered in one of those fluffy stacks. Then a coin, then a button.

And the family fortune is made.

The history of pancake day in Newfoundland

Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday as it’s known in the Anglo-Saxon Christian tradition, falls on the last Tuesday before Lent and derives from the term to be ‘shriven’ or absolved by a priest. Christian belief dictates one must make confession and receive forgiveness before Lent, the most pious time of year in this faith. On this last evening before Lent, it’s customary to eat up all of the fatty, rich and ‘pleasurable’ foods like meat, eggs and dairy before the ritual 40 days of fasting begin.

So what is made from butter, eggs and flour? Pancakes of course – rationality can be delicious sometimes too.

For Newfoundlanders (and some Cape Bretoners, as it turns out), Pancake Day is more than using up fatty ingredients before Lent, or for the more secularly-inclined, a reason to eat a pile of pancakes on a Tuesday — items, like coins or charms, are placed in pancakes as a way to predict the future

While the pancake-eating tradition has its roots in Britain (England even has pancake races on Shrove Tuesday) it transplanted itself into the customs of Newfoundlanders, whose ancestors hail from these areas, and evolved over time and place.
“Traditionally the evening before major religious dates have been associated, perhaps only in playful ways but also in fairly serious ways, with supernatural notions. Shrove Tuesday is the last day of Shrovetide, the day before Lent begins, and it has for centuries had special things associated with it, in this case, playful divination,” says Dr. Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at Memorial University of Newfoundland who focuses on the folklore of Newfoundland and Labrador and the evolution of custom.

Newfoundlanders cook small items into the pancakes to predict the future of their family members: If a boy finds something related to a trade that is what he will be, if a girl finds something, that’s the type of man she will marry.

So, what does it mean if you find a treasure in your pillowy dinner?

Piece of string: you’ll be (or marry) a fisherman
Piece of wood: you’ll be (or marry) a carpenter
Wedding ring: means you will marry
Button: represents bachelorhood meaning you will not marry
Penny: you’ll be the poor one
Dime: you’ll be the rich one
Nail: means you’ll be (or marry) a blacksmith
or a carpenter; in some families it means you were the next to die
Pencil stub: you’ll be (or marry) a teacher
Holy medal: means you will join a religious order

These symbols have varied from outport to outport and from family to family through generations of practice.

“During the 1970s and ’80s, we started seeing children and parents engaging with those roles in many ways, questioning them, and allowing for newer interpretations,” says Hiscock, with recent generations getting rid of the stay-at-home-mom tradition and moving towards a more modern approach: if you’re a girl, you can be a carpenter too.

Some families only have coins in their pancakes. The introduction of the one-dollar coin in 1987 and the two-dollar coin in 1996 contributed to a shift in this culture, and there’s no doubt that rounding out five bucks over a plate of pancakes for dinner can be equally exhilarating.

Let’s be honest, everyone loves breakfast for dinner, but finding the dime is the icing on the cake.

The recipe for these delicious-looking pancakes can be found here!

This article was originally published on the now defunct Backstory Magazine in February 2016.

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