Submitted by Maren Williams
The first time I celebrated Fastelavn was at Himmelbjerget Danish Camp in 1995. Although the camp packing list told us to bring a costume, I didn’t know what it was going to be for. I made my own costume. I was the Snow Queen in a white dress with silver sleeves and silver icicles. Over the course of the week of camp we all learned to sing the Danish Fastelavn song. One night we wore our costumes to dinner, and afterward we went outside to hit the cat out of the barrel. We had a real wooden barrel with a black cat painted on it, and it was so much harder to break than the homemade pinatas I had grown up with. I can’t remember who was the cat queen or king that year. What I do remember was the joy on the counselor’s faces as they remembered fastelavn celebrations from their childhood. I loved the novelty of the traditions with their special Danish flavor and history. I have loved Fastelavn ever since. Though I have a strong connection to my Danish heritage, that celebration didn’t get passed through my family and it got me wondering about the history of it. So I began digging.
The roots of Fastelavn are quite ancient, coming from chasing away evil spirits and welcoming the new growth with fertility rituals. Hitting the cat out of the barrel was a practice primarily in Denmark and Skåne, Sweden. Meant to chase away evil spirits, a live cat (black, representing evil) was used, over time turning into a homemade straw or fabric scrap cat, and finally turning into what we know today, a black cat painted on a barrel filled with candy. The “fastelavns ris” came out of a fertility ritual where they believed hitting each other with new green growth of spring, preferably with some buds would lead to fertility. In around the 1800’s they began decorating these sticks with the images of fastelavn, cats, storks and flowers and using them mainly as decoration.
Another of the oldest parts of the Fastelavn tradition is the costume parade. In Danish communities near the water as early as 1700, boats were put on wheels, decorated with garlands and driven through the city. In other communities the parades were on horseback, or parades of costumed citizens. Before the 1800’s when Fastelavn became more of a children’s holiday, the adults were the ones who beat the cat from the barrel, and they often did it from horseback!
With the influence of the Christian church, the concept of Lent and fasting were added, making Fastelavn a feasting celebration before the fast. Although it became a holiday more about the Christian calendar, the Danes kept many of the traditions of costumes, masks, celebratory foods, and breaking the barrel. During reformation (mid 1500’s) the fast became less common, and the traditions began to shift to the child centered party we have today.
As in the olden days, modern celebrations are often shared with the community you live in. In Denmark, there are often parades of costumed participants, in Amager they still hold one on horseback. In community halls, backyards, and museums children line up to take turns hitting the cat from the barrel, and share the candy that spills out. Someone becomes the Cat Queen for inflicting the first break to the barrel, while another becomes the Cat King when the bottom finally falls out.
What everyone agrees on is that the “fastelavns boller” are the star of the show. Called “semlor” in Sweden, they are linked to the “Shrove Tuesday” pancake tradition of eating the delicious eggs, butter, cream, and sugar that might be given up for Lent. There are many recipes, and they are fairly time consuming to make from scratch, but they are delicious, and we’re including an easy version in this Fastelavn guide.
As I agreed to help plan a Covid-19 virtual Fastelavn, I contacted friends in Denmark from my many years of Himmelbjerget to ask how they would celebrate this year. Here are their celebration plans:
“I think it’s just fastelavnsboller and hygge time with friends. There’s not so much more to do right now.”
“We plan to invite the children living on our street to hit the cat out of the barrel in our garden.”
“There’s not much going on because of Corona, but I’ll have some buns, and the kids will dress up.”
“We have to dress up as a ninja, Tuareg, surgeon and ice hockey goalkeeper this year, it has to be ‘corona-safe’. We make Fastelavn buns and that is pretty much what is left of the Shrovetide tradition in Denmark ... But the Shrovetide buns [will] probably continue to be a tradition and they taste good.”
We’ll be doing the same at my house, with costumes and a dairy free version of fastelavns boller. We’ll make a barrel from the craft tutorial and see who in our house gets to be cat king this year.
We hope you’ll join us in this uniquely scandinavian tradition and try some of the games and crafts at home.
Want to learn to say some of these Danish words? Check out these pronunciation guides from the Copenhagen Language Center
A little about me:
Maren Williams is a descendant of Danes who settled in Denmark, Kansas. She holds a Bachelor's double degree in Danish and Psychology and a M.Ed in School Counseling. She has a passion for helping kids connect with the language and culture of Denmark, with a particular interest in helping them understand how their heritage connects them to their family and to the world. She has been a camper, counselor, and director at Himmelbjerget Danish Camp, a past director of Dane Camp in Seattle, and founded Little Tivoli Danish Day Camp in 2018 for the young Danes of the Portland area.