For centuries the English have celebrated Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, with merriment and antics and, especially great quantities of pancakes. In fact, the fried flat cakes became so important to the holiday that it has also been called Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday.

Long ago, strict Christian Lenten rules prohibited the eating of all dairy products, so keen housewives made pancakes (and fritters) to use up their supplies of eggs, milk, butter and other fats.They could be easily made and cooked in a skillet or on a griddle. Families ate stacks of them, and pancakes were popular with all classes.

The rich Shrovetide pancakes were eaten as a ritual or symbol of self-indulgence before the fast. Early English recipes called for wheaten flour, eggs, butter or lard, a liquid (water, milk, ale or wine) and flavorings such as white or brown sugar, spices (nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger), orange flower water, scented sugars or liqueurs.

The pancakes were fried in butter or fat and served flat or rolled and sprinkled with powdered sugar, topped with preserves or doused with alchohol. A special pancake called a Quire of Pancake or a Quire of Paper was made very thin and usually stacked. It was likened to a quire of "wafers" of writing paper.

Even the church bells that rang early on Shrove Tuesday morning summoning everyone to confession and to be "shriven" became known as Pancake Bells. They also were reminders to use up the "forbidden bidden foods" before Lent. An old London rhyme went "Pancakes and fritters, say the bells of Saint Peter's."

The popular English holiday was celebrated with robust games, highjinks, children begging for "a shroving gift" (pancakes), and making and eating pancakes. Almost everyone would engage in pancake frivolity and a pancake contest.

Particularly popular was the tossing of pancakes. "Throwing the pancake" was a phrase for the fun. An old verse related that each man and woman:

"Doe toss their pancakes for fear they burn ,

And all the children doth with laughter sound ,

To see the pancakes fall upon the ground ."

It is still the custom at Westminster College for a cook in traditional garb to toss a pancake over a bar into a group of students who vie to get the largest piece and win a monetary reward.

In the market town of Olney a colorful Pancake Race was initiated in 1445 and has since been continued as a celebrated annual community event. Local housewives with their skillets and pancakes line up by the well of the market square and take off on a 415-yard course at the sound of the bell, flipping pancakes merrily as they run over ancient cobblestones to the church. The winner is warmly acclaimed and rewarded.

In 1950 the community of Liveral, Kan., which calls itself "the pancake hub of the universe," sponsored the first of the annual international pancake races staged between the housewives of Olney, England, and Liberal. Considerable hoopla and longdistance phone calls determine the winner, who is given custody of a trophy, a silver skillet engraved with the names of all the winners.

A good way to celebrate Shrove Tuesday on March 3 is with the following pancakes recipes. LEMON PANCAKES (Makes 16 to 20 pancakes) 3/4 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 eggs 1 cup milk 2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine 2 lemons, cut into wedges 1 cup powdered sugar

Combine flour, salt, eggs and 1/2 cup milk in medium-size bowl. Mix with a whisk or rotary beater until smooth. Add remaining milk and butter or margarine; beat until smooth. Heat a lightly buttered 6- or 7-inch crepe pan or skillet. Pour in 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons batter; quickly tilt pan to spread batter evenly over entire surface. Fry until golden on underside; turn; cook on other side. Turn onto a pie pan or baking sheet. Keep war, in a preheated 250-degree oven while cooking remaining pancakes to use all the batter. To serve, put pancakes on a large plate, lemon wedges on a small plate and powdered sugar in a small bowl. Sprinkle hot pancakes with sugar and squeeze a little lemon juice over top. DESSERT PANCAKES (Makes about 16 pancakes) 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 eggs 1 1/2 cups milk 1 tablespoon salad oil Jam, jelly or marmalade Powdered sugar

Combine flour, salt, eggs and 3/4 cup milk in a medium-size bowl. Mix with a whisk or rotary beater until smooth. Add remaining 3/4 cup milk and oil; beat until smooth. Spread a thin layer of batter in a buttered, lightly-heated crepe pan or skillet. Spread each with jam, jelly or marmalade; roll up; sprinkle with sugar. QUIRE PANCAKES (Makes about 20 pancakes) 1 cup all-purpose flour Dash salt 2 eggs 1 1/4 cups light cream or milk 2 tablespoons dry sherry 2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine 1/4 teaspoon orange extract Dash grated nutmeg Butter and honey for topping

Combine flour, salt, eggs and 3/4 cup cream or milk in a medium-size bowl. Mix with a whisk or rotary beater until smooth. Add remaining 3/4 cup cream or milk, sherry, melted butter or margarine, orange extract and nutmeg; beat until smooth. Spread a thin layer of batter in a buttered, lightly-heated crepe pan or skillet. Serve hot with butter and honey.

Note: If possible, it is best to make the pancake batter at least one hour beforehand as the flour will become throughly absorbed and you will have more tender pancakes. You can also prepare the batter and store it in the refrigerator on to several days.