Fastelavn – The Danish Carnival

”Fastelavn” is Danish for “Shrovetide” or “carnival”. The carnival tradition dates back to 7-800 BC, where it was a pagan celebration with the purpose of driving away the darkness of winter and welcoming spring. Depending on how you choose to interpret the etymology of the word “carnival”, it derives either from the Latin “carne vale” (farewell to meat) or from ”carrus navalis”, which is an Egyptian phrase related to the Navigium Isidis or Vessel of Isis. With the introduction of Christianity in Europe, carnival became a Christian tradition (Shrovetide), leading up to the 40 days of lent before Easter. But this holiday still serves the same purpose as always: To bring light at the end of dark times.

The Danish word for Shrovetide, “fastelavn” derives from the Low German “vastelavent” – the “night before lent”. Shrove Sunday always falls on the seventh Sunday before Easter, and is followed by Shrove Monday, Shrove Tuesday (or Pancake Day!) and Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of 40 days of lent preparing for the wonder of Easter and the resurrection of Christ. Historically, the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday were used to eat as much meat and sweets as possible, since both were forbidden during lent. This is why Shrove Sunday and Shrove Monday are also known as “flæskesøndag” and “flæskemandag” (pork Sunday and pork Monday). In Denmark, Shrove Tuesday is called “hvide tirsdag” (White Tuesday) because you would traditionally eat white foods on this last day before lent. This is also the day you would eat the fastelavnsboller (Shrovetide buns), a sweet bun filled with custard or marzipan. On Ash Wednesday you would paint a cross on your forehead with a piece of coal as a symbol of your sins, and go to church to repent and receive forgiveness.

Back then, Shrovetide was mainly a celebration for adults who would dress up and celebrate, whereas today most of the festivities are for children. An old tradition, which is still in practice, is the Danish custom of tilting at a barrel. Earlier, a black cat would be seen as a symbol of evil, so you would put a black cat into a barrel, hang the barrel from a tree or a beam, and then beat the barrel with a stick until it broke and killed the cat. To this day, children still tilt at a barrel, but it usually contains sweets or toys. However, a part of the old custom remains as the one to break the last board of the barrel is still crowned the King of Cats.

Another tradition that still remains is the decorated Shrovetide birch rod, which was traditionally used to birch sin and evil out of people. Today, the tradition is much more homely, and many children will decorate their birch rod in school or in kindergarten, and wake up their parents on Shrove Sunday by beating the birch on their duvets and singing this song.

Happy fastelavn!


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