Today is International Pancake Day, but it’s not about eating pancakes. It celebrates a race that was first run in 1445 by housewives in Olney, England. Since 1950, the townsfolk compete against each other and the women of Liberal, Kansas.
According to legend, the tradition dates back to 1445 in Olney. A housewife was making pancakes, hurrying to use up the cooking fat forbidden during Lent. When she heard the church bells ring calling the townspeople to the Shrove Tuesday service, she donned the headscarf required in church and ran there, carrying the pan and wearing her apron.
It made such an impression that other women in the congregation duplicated her run the following year, turning it into a race. The person who made it to the church steps first would flip her pancake and receive a blessing and a “Kiss of Peace” from the bell-ringer. Falling as it did on the day before Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and prayer, the race gave rise to a full day of celebration.
The local tradition has continued ever since. There have been lapses in its observance through the centuries, but the race has never been completely forgotten. One of those lapses occurred during World War II. Reverend Canon Ronald Collins, Vicar of Olney, revived the race in 1948. While tidying up a cupboard, he discovered photos taken in the 1920s and 1930s of women running with pans.
Excited to bring back the ancient custom, he asked for volunteers for the race. Thirteen runners participated that year. The townsfolk embraced the practice anew, happy to honor Olney’s colorful history and enjoy themselves with a day of festivities.
Pancake Day Jumps the Pond
In 1950, Liberal, Kansas Jaycee president R.J. Leete saw magazine photographs of Olney women racing each other to the church. He wanted to start a similar tradition, so he contacted Reverend Collins and challenged the women of Olney to race against the women of Liberal.
Olney accepted the challenge and the two towns have competed every year since, exchanging prizes and keeping score via a live Web link. (Headscarves and aprons are still required.)
In the time-honored American tradition of doing everything bigger, the holiday in Liberal has expanded into a four-day event, with pancake eating and flipping contests, a parade, a beauty pageant and a talent show.
As of 2015, Liberal has won 37 times; Olney, 28. In 1980, the scores were thrown out because a media truck blocked the finish line in Olney. The results of today’s race will be available here later today. We wish good luck to all the runners and a happy International Pancake Day to us all.