Growing up in the Mohawk Valley of New York post-WW2 we were privileged to have relatives and semi-relatives bonded by humorous traditions and mock ceremonies. One of those practices involved what to do with leftover pancakes once all had eaten their fill. The tradition was to cook up the extra batter, save the pancakes and store them in a trunk in the attic.
We kids always thought this was a very ridiculous practice. Nonetheless it was perpetually mentioned as the answer for as long as we can remember and probably for at least a generation before us.
That practice still sticks in my mind each time I make pancakes.
Now, before you get too committed to the idea that these were simple country folks who knew no better, and of course you in your sophistication ridicule the whole idea, let me assure you that they and we also found it ridiculous.
(In the event you remain confused, I also assure you no pancake ever saw a trunk in our attics.)
The mere discussion of it was in itself the non-serious mock tradition enforcing a shared and bonding tradition of funny concepts.
Much like Groundhog Day.
Today is Groundhog Day, another non-serious mock tradition enforcing a shared and bonding tradition of funny concepts. Both traditions are a bit wacky but somehow seem to bond us, or at least peacefully remind us of our shared traditions.
You might be forgiven to think there is no connection between pancakes in the attic and Groundhog Day. You would be wrong.
Bear with me and let me explain:
From antiquity to the Middle Ages, bears were an object of cult. Germans and Scandinavians and to a lesser extent the Celts celebrated the end of hibernation of the bears at the beginning of February. This was around the time when the bears would leave their dens and see if the weather was mild. This festival was characterized by bear costumes or disguises.
For a long time, the Catholic Church sought to eradicate this pagan practice. To do this, it instituted the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple to be celebrated on February 2, which corresponds to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. We know it as Candlemas, if you know it at all.
Groundhogs look like little bears. They share similar personalities, diet and, particularly, the habit of hibernating in winter and sticking their head out around early February to check conditions. If it is still cold they may go back to sleep for another month or more.
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May
Both bears and groundhogs are pretty grumpy when they awake and stick their head out from their bed, not unlike Geezer himself. A crowd around a bear cave… well, you can imagine the possibilities.
Thus the more prevalent ‘baby bear’, the groundhog, became the safer substitute for the bear in the eyes of the pagans and those Christians who enjoyed the tradition without really giving it credence. They were no more ignorant than you nor I… nor my ancestors. They simply enjoyed the celebration.
So, what does this have to do with pancakes… especially pancakes in the attic?
As we mentioned above, the Catholic Church fixed February 2 as Candlemas, The Feast of the Presentation, one of the oldest feasts of the Christian church, celebrated since the 4th century AD in Jerusalem. It was fixed to that date to match another pagan celebration, Imbolc, though they would never admit it.
Among the Celts, the pagan celebration of Imbolc occurred on the first of February. This was in honor of the goddess Brigid and was associated with purification and fertility at the end of winter. Peasants would carry torches and cross the fields in procession, praying to the goddess to purify the ground before planting.
In churches, the torches were replaced by blessed candles whose glow was supposed to take away evil and symbolize that Christ is the light of the world. They would then take the candles to their homes to bring protection to their homes.
As it is elsewhere, Candlemas is celebrated in France, Belgium and Switzerland in the churches on February 2. It is also considered as the Day of Crêpes. Tradition attributes this custom to Pope Gelasius I, who had pancakes distributed to pilgrims arriving in Rome.
You can see where this is going…
To celebrate Candlemas, all the candles in the house would be lit. It was in these celebrations also that the pancakes, with their round shape and golden color reminiscent of the solar disc, symbolized the return of Spring after the dark and cold of Winter. It is also the time of year when the winter seeds begin to grow. The people therefore used left-over flour to make these crêpes, symbolizing prosperity for the coming year.
Here we go, to close the loop!
Even today in those countries there is symbolism associated with the preparation of the crêpes on Candlemas. It is said that the first pancake made should be kept in an armoire to ensure a plentiful harvest later in the year. It is sometimes specified that it be placed at the top of the armoire, and the pancake will supposedly not get moldy and will keep misery and deprivation far away.
Thus we come full circle: Groundhog Day, Candlemas, Pancakes-in-the-Armoire.
I doubt our ancestors had any idea of the connection. Yet the simple custom of their joking of putting leftover pancakes in a trunk in the attic unknowingly bonds us back through thousands of years of time and cultures.
We hope you have enjoyed this little trip through history. My thanks to Google and Wikipedia for making it all available.
In keeping with the spirit of the day we will be enjoying pancakes and pork sausage for dinner this evening. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining.
Your comments are always considered important.