Pancake Day has been around forever, of course, IHOP did not invent that. If you don't know, Lent in Catholicism is when you abstain from something for six days per week, starting on Ash Wednesday 40 days before Easter.(1) Sundays during Lent are exempt, that's why it is only 40 days instead of 46. In modern times people give up something they really like but in the past, it involved all people giving up 'rich' foods. In Merry Olde England, those rich foods were dairy products, so to prepare for fasting, they made a lot of pancakes to exhaust the supply of eggs, milk and butter. Eating pancakes became so synonymous with Shrove Tuesday (derived from "shrive" - to confess) that it began to be called Pancake Tuesday.
In mostly-Protestant America, it is instead called Mardi Gras (translation: 'fat Tuesday'), and is mostly an excuse to get drunk in honor of not having to give up anything for Lent. We use the French term(2) so that is a victory of the French over the English but we also celebrate Cinco de Mayo in May, which was a Mexican victory against the French. We like to stay neutral that way. Foreign entanglements and all that.
So why is IHOP’s National Pancake Day on February 28th instead of the 21st, the last day before Lent? Because they assume no one cares about the actual date - and they are right. We fought a whole war 200 years ago in order not to have the British tell us when we could eat pancakes so we are not going to cave into them now.
If you want some free flapjacks, hie thee to IHOP on February 28th. What's the catch? Well, none, if you are a greedy skinflint who doesn't care about children, you get some free pancakes. But you are also statistically unlikely to be on a science website at all if you are in your own world like that, so it is unlikely readers of this article are that cheap. So the catch is that IHOP asks that you donate some money - any amount - and it goes to the charity. Since we are in Folsom, for example, donations made at local IHOPs will benefit the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ program at UC Davis Children's Hospital.
How many pancakes do they expect to serve up? If they stacked all of the free pancakes from National Pancake Day 2011 it would be nearly 16 miles high. More importantly, since they started doing this in 2006, IHOP has raised nearly $8 million.
If you don't want to wait in line for free pancakes, or no IHOP is nearby, you can also donate at http://www.ihoppancakeday.com/ but, really, go get the pancakes. It's more than pancakes or supporting research, it is community-building.
(1) If you know anything about Easter, you probably know that the 40 days of Lent is because that is how long Jesus wandered in the desert. You might be inclined to wonder why 40 shows up a lot in the Bible. Noah got 40 days and nights of rain, the Jews wandered for 40 years, Moses got the 10 Commandments over 40 days also. Historians say it's a common number because a woman typically carries a baby for 40 weeks. See, even the Bible cares about kids - when Solomon wasn't telling women to cut a baby in half, of course.
(2) Other names for Mardi Gras / Fat Tuesday besides Shrove / Pancake Tuesday:
(A) In Greece, it is Apocreas, 'from the meat' because they used to not eat that either, instead of abstaining from it only on Fridays during the season. Doesn't everything in Greek sound like the world is coming to an end?
(B) The day I flash for beads
(C) In the Rhine area of Germany, it is Fasteloven. Why that never caught on is unclear, because that is a terrifically fun term. Maybe if the Hessians had fought before during the American Revolution, German terms would be more popular now.
(D) Sprengidagur (Bursting day) in Iceland is a close runner-up to Fasteloven.
But the one mostly likely to be applicable to readers of Science 2.0 is:
(E) The day before I call in sick