Gammelgaard, where my grandmother and then my mother, ran the household and where I grew up. (Father's side)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fastelavn-Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras........ (revised)

Some towns hold large celebrations

        "Adored child answers to many names" (Danish saying). "Fastelavn" is the Danish celebration and indulgence before Lent...wait, Danes are no longer Catholic...well, we chose to keep some of the more fun traditions and as it turns out, parts of these traditions are quite pagan. Fastelavn is always 7 weeks prior to Easter, which means that this year (2013) it will be on February 10th. It is a feast where you may enjoy all the things in abundance that you will have to be without during the 40 days of Lent. It is a feast the world over, where you get to turn the world upside down for a day and let lose a little. In Denmark the Lent part is no longer observed generally speaking, but the old traditions shine,especially for children.

         Children will wake up and find a bunch of twigs tied together on the covers of their bed. Tied onto the twigs is candy, feathers, colorful strings and paper cut-outs. Once the children have removed the candy, they wake their parents by beating on their bedcovers with the bunch of twigs. Later they dress in costumes, go to parties where they will use a bat to beat a wooden barrel (Pinata-style) with a cat on it. The person who manages to beat the bottom of the  barrel down and cause all the candy to fall to the ground becomes the Cat Queen ; the game continues thereafter and the one to beat down the last piece of wood from the hanging barrel becomes Cat King. (No mention of Cat Cora!)

        Delicious creme-filled and chocolate glazed buns is the traditional Fastelavn treat and often the costumed children will go door to door, trick-or-treat style, while singing the traditional Fastelavn song (that demands those buns or else trickery will ensue.) known by all Danes. Perhaps one of the few things you may successfully retrieve from a Dane if you try that exercise your teacher always threatened to do, namely wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you to recite something.

Children in costume, attempting to become Cat-Queen or Cat-King
     The twig tradition goes far back and varies from county to county. It can be Willow branches in some areas, bud-bearing fruit-tree branches in others. One part of the ritual stems from an old fertility ritual that later made it's way into Christian traditions. Young women and infertile women were flogged with the bud-bearing branches to encourage fertility. After the Reformation (1536) a more serious side developed among the more pious, who would flog their children on Good Friday to remind them of Christ's suffering. Luckily the flogging is now for the children to perform on their parents' bedcovers and with the sweet reward of a Fastelavn bun.

         This time of year has been celebrated always, as the time changer it is between winter and spring, in essence a way to celebrate the new year . Pre-Christianity parties would mark the change and express the hopes for a good growing season. Traditions of two opposing people being dressed up, one as Winter and one as Summer, and having to fight each other (summer should win!) go far back. The summer- and winter-costume part continued even after people became Christian, with  the introduction of new costumes, first the village Joker, who would tease and joke, and later other characters. It is a recurring theme with role-playing and role-reversing being part of season-changing celebrations, where people prepare for something new. People would go from farm to farm and collect food for the village community's party that same evening, offering songs as payment.

        The barrel tradition used to include a real and very unlucky cat inside of the barrel. It originally was one of the games at the village community's party, and these games were physically demanding. Farm-work was hard work, so the games would reflect this amount of brawn. Some of the games had root in jousting games from medieval times, like this barrel game, which back then was carried out from horse-back.
        Each farm was represented by one rider. All the riders would take turn at whacking the barrel with a bat until a hole occurred and the cat (or cats! Sometimes they used two, and tied their tails together) would escape (unless it was harmed in the process) and that particular rider would be declared Cat-King. Much was at stake then, as the farm he represented in some places would go tax-free for a full year! These games were serious!

        Luckily the cat has been replaced by a paper decoration of a cat on the outside of the barrel. The significance was to chase away all evil before the beginning of spring and the growing season. Cats were traditionally viewed as untrustworthy and suspicious. The cat was also considered witches' companions which wasn't additive to their reputation.
People certainly didn't have the same view of animals, as we do today, and part of the reason for using a cat was simply because they found it fun! Keep in mind however that this tradition goes far back and that the cats that were used in the late 1800s mostly were let go without harm.

Poor Goose!
The cats were not the only animals caused harm at this time, other games in olden days included roosters and geese who were tied upside down from a branch, their necks greased (harder to get a grip) and the object being for the horseback-riding participants to pull the heads off the poor birds. These games most likely came from Holland, blame the Dutch! :-)

Glorious Carnival in Venice

Poor Cat! Illust. by Otto Bache 1862
        Today Fastelavn is a rather funfilled harmless feast, but this wasn't always the case as the statements above elude to. In 1683 it became illegal by decree in Christian V's Law. Something the pious thoroughly agreed with. The priests did not like the fun and games, where young maidens would run around "with their hair lose and in light clothing competing in races with young lads". Pontoppidan, from that time, described it as:" Bait for sinning" that the Devil used to "tickle regular folk's unsophisticated tastebuds with".

     There is the glorious Carnival in Venice with costumes of a caliber nowhere else to be seen; Carnival in Rio with glorious costumes of a miniscule scale seen nowhere else; festive Mardi Gras in New Orleans and then there is Fastelavn in Denmark with Fastelavn buns so tasty you must have another one.  Another example of traditions that tie us all together in our global history. "Fastelavn, er mit navn, boller vil jeg have; hvis jeg ingen boller faar, saa laver jeg ballade"..... (The afore mentioned Fastelavn song)


  1. God læsning, den slags man aldrig finde ud af medmindre man forlader landet

  2. Great article, if publishing a book is your goal it would be nice to mention the practice of hitting a barrel be referred to as " Slog katten af tønden" which is what the Danes refer to it as.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thank you so much, all suggestions are warmly welcomed :-)