So going through Nordic Christmas traditions last time, let’s take a look at the Danish version of Halloween—Fastelavn.
These days fastelavn is getting overshadowed by Halloween, and it is currently a dying tradition. Kids used to go out to “rasle,” which is like trick or treating except you were supposed to give them a little money instead of candy. It’s been years since anyone has come by at fastelavn here.
The modern day variant is strictly for children. They dress up in colourful costumes and in schools and institutions they are “striking the cat from the barrel.” A wooden barrel is filled with candy—like a hardwood piñata—and the kids line up to take turns whacking it with a bat.
The first kid to smash the barrel to the point it spills candy is crowned “Cat-Queen” and whoever destroys the last piece of wood to dangle from the string is crowned “Cat-King.”
The barrel is often adorned by cartoon cats.
These days it is a feast for kids, but it used to be an adult thing, and much, much more sinister.
Fastelavn is named after the fast. It is supposed to be the last celebration before the 40-day fast preceding Easter. As the last chance to party it was notoriously wild beforehand.
Like the carnival in Italy and other southern nations it was a day where the rules do not apply. Everyone would dress up, and since you couldn’t tell royalty from beggar behind the costumes, this one day you had the chance to reverse roles for a little while.
As with so many Danish traditions, the protestant church did not like this at all and tried to outlaw fastelavn several times, but the people were not receptive to their demands.
They regarded the turbulent celebrations as a pagan leftover and feared civil unrest and rebellion around the celebration, particularly in times of famine and poverty. Not totally without reason, either.
The celebration gave people a taste of freedom and the masks prevented the identification of anyone getting a little too carried away. Scores could be settled.
As with all Nordic traditions there was a tendency for fastelavn to evolve into drunken debauchery and so there had to be rules to guide people.
Enter the fastelavnsris. These are branches of birch decorated with colourful bands and these days filled with candy.
Earlier, there was no candy and you were supposed to wake your parents by hitting them (gently) with the birch branches—something that should make them fertile and “youthful.”
In even earlier times the young men would run around and whip whichever young woman they fancied with the fastelavnsris, and, if she liked it, they would venture out into the fields to be “fertile.” The church looked the other way.
There were huge regional differences in how we celebrated fastalavn, and there still are. Some places have people riding horses during the festivities, and others have elaborate rules for how long you kept on the masks.
Sadly, it was not a good time to be a cat.
In the old days, a live cat was placed into the barrel and once the barrel broke, the cat would be beaten to death. Black cats were considered bad omens, and it was believed that a city could prevent outbreaks of the plague if they sacrificed a black cat.
This tradition was ended in 1830 in Denmark, but we kept the barrel and just changed the meaning of it all.
Fastelavn, or carnival as it was called in the south, was celebrated across Europe, and the Portuguese brought it to Brazil where it grew into the huge thing it is today. Interestingly, the U.S. tradition of Mardi Gras is a distant offshoot of the European carnival.