For the last few weeks, rails in Danish shops have been fully stocked with children’s costumes, alongside stacked pyramids of wooden barrels, while in supermarkets there are corners packed with colourful sweets.
Exchange the wooden barrels for orange and black decorations, and you’d think it was Halloween-in-early-spring.
In fact, the event all children in Denmark get excited about at this time of year is Fastelavn. Essentially, this festival is the Danish translation of Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras – the feast before the fasting of Lent. The traditions are a little different though. It officially takes place on the Sunday before Lent begins (so for 2020, it’s February 23), although celebrations and parties take place before and after.
Fastelavnsboller – indulgent iced buns filled with cream – start appearing in shops as early as mid-January, the costumes and barrels following soon after. Parading in costume is a familiar carnival tradition, but what about the barrels? Well, you knock the cat out of it (slå katten af tønden), of course!
There’s no actual animal cruelty these days. Historically, there really was a cat in the barrel, and beating the barrel was a ritual practised to ward off evil, with the cat being allowed to run off once the barrel fell apart. Now, the barrel might have images of a cat on it, but contains sweets (slik), and the child whose blow releases the sweets becomes kattedronning (queen of cats), while the one whose blow finally knocks the barrel down is kattekonge (king of cats).
Of course Denmark is, at least nominally, Lutheran, so Lent is no longer a religious practice here; the tradition of Fastelavn has outlived it for the sake of a fun childrens’ party. It’s taken further now, inspired perhaps by Halloween, with some children taking to the streets to sing and demand slik from their neighbours.
I’ve long been fascinated with the sets of traditions and rituals that have grown around the world at this time of year. They reflect our human desire to indulge our impulses, and let go of our inhibitions – embrace the chaos even. As Lent approached, we wanted to get meat and fat out of the kitchen, and get a lot else out of our systems, before we have to abstain and start behaving ourselves, thus the permissiveness of carnival.
The most famous example is probably the flamboyant carnival of Rio de Janeiro, with its resplendent and lavish costumes, all watched from huge grandstands that line the streets. Or New Orleans’ joyful and music-filled Mardi Gras. That’s one for the bucket list; one day I’ll dance on Canal Street, sazerac in my hand.
Meanwhile, in France…
When we lived in south-west France, this time of year brought some more startling surprises. The first time I read about Carnaval in French class, my fellow students and I frowned at the article, wondering whether our vocabulary wasn’t actually up to scratch after all, and reaching for our Larousse. But yes, we had read correctly. There were indeed bears who would wake from their hibernation and descend from the mountains to invade the town and do…something…to the virgins of Pau. And there was a pig (Sent Pancard) who was the king of the carnival and ultimately the scapegoat for all the wild uninhibited behaviour that his citizens had been getting up to for the week. On the last day, he would be burned in the public square, so that all the craziness could be absolved before the constraints of Lent began.
In reality, this scene plays out as a frantic spectacle in the streets of the old town, where men drag up to represent the virgins, more locals disguise themselves as the libidinous bears, and they’re tracked down by women playing the part of hunters. Throughout the week, there are parades, concerts, a ball, and the final procession, with the effigy of Sent Pancard paraded through the streets.
Even though this was a lesser-known carnival in a quieter corner of the world, the bizarre, Béarnaise tradition (Le Carnaval Biarnés, in the local dialect) really captured for me the essence of the carnival spirit, the idea of letting loose demons and inhibitions and getting every basic impulse out in the open. Those carnival costumes, for adults and children, were anarchic, with most people not so much dressed up as something, but wearing clashing chaotic combinations of colours and garments, and frequently with masked faces. Just as with the more glamorous Venice carnival, masked costumes allow for the kind of disinhibition that only comes when you don’t have to be yourself.
(Here, you might like to imagine a thrown-way-back pic of me receiving a ‘bear hug’ in the streets of Pau…I’m trying to track it down – watch this space!)
There were a lot of festivals in that part of the world, including the Basque feria (in several French and Spanish towns, not just Pamplona), and Nuit de la Musique on midsummer night, but the Carnaval was such a quirky, risqué display of abandon in what was a usually fairly elegant, genteel town, and a really exhilarating event to witness.
In Britain, We Bake
Back in the UK, we mark the day too. We’re all set to overindulge, pander to our baser instincts, and fully relish the opportunity to go wild…
We make pancakes.
Yes, true to stereotype, the British way to do carnival is simply and frugally, using up our fat and sugar, the ingredients that aren’t allowed during Lent. We call it Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, sprinkle lemon juice and sugar on our treats, and call it a day right there for the fun and games. Most households will include the informal tradition of attempting to toss the first pancake in the pan with a grand flourish, until it either gets stuck on the ceiling or disintegrates into pieces, and so they continue the rest of the batch with a humble spatula. With the exception of a few towns which hold pancake races, or other idiosyncratic sporting events, that’s the extent of our carnival pleasures.
Have you been celebrating Fastlavn? How did you mark the occasion? Or is there something in your own culture that marks this juxtaposition between indulgence and restraint? I’d love to collect more of these stories and traditions!
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