Are You Ready to Party?

Because the Danish version of Halloween + Mardi Gras known as Fastelavn is upon us.

Fastelavn (literally “the fast evening”) is a holdover holiday from when Denmark was a Catholic country. (Which was, like, 400 years ago, so that’s quite a holdover!). It was originally a big celebration and feast before starting the 40 day fasting of Lent. So, just like Mardi Gras only without all the beads and naked ladies. (In fact, my Google Translate automatically translates fastelavn into Mardi Gras, which is very confusing when I’m trying to do a Google search!)

In olden days, some very specific things happened on Fastelavn. First, and perhaps most notably, the villagers would put a black cat – the eternal symbol of evil – into a barrel and whack the barrel with sticks until the cat fell out, thus signifying the triumph over evil for the rest of the year. This practice is known, inventively, as slå katten af tønden (“hit the cat out of the barrel”).

Kids still reenact this custom, but these days it’s more like hitting a piñata. It’s still a barrel, but it’s full of candy (slik) instead of cats, and the kids whack it until it falls apart.

barrel

The first one to knock the bottom out of the barrel (releasing all the candy) is announced kattedronning (“queen of cats”) and gets a dronningekrone, a small, queen sized crown. The person who knocks down the last piece of the barrel becomes  kattekonge (“king of cats”) and gets a king sized crown, or a kongekrone.

Here's some good old Danish humor for you.

Here’s some good old Danish humor for you.

Another old tradition revolves around what’s called fastelavnsris. These are a bundles of sticks – usually of willow or a fruit tree, hopefully with buds – that are decorated with paper cutouts, candies, and other things.

They used to look like this:

Ye Olde Tyme Ris

Today, they look more like children ran at some twigs with glitter and feathers because probably they did.

Apparently, they're also used in home decor in the spring.

Apparently, they’re also used as a home decor item.

These days, children make these and then use them on the morning of Fastelavn to flog their parents, as demonstrated in this video.

Apparently, this custom comes from an old fertility ritual. (Which I guess means that the kids are encouraging their parents to get fertile and get on with having more babies?? Really, I think it’s more about the topsy-tuvyness of carnival.) Wikipedia also has this to say about said flogging around the 1700s:

Earlier, it was mainly the young women and the infertile who were flogged. It was also common that a young man would carry his “fastelavnsris” and (of course gently) strike at young women he met on the street. Later it became the children’s special right to flog their parents on this day. In any case, the reward given for the flogging would be a fastelavnsbolle.

So if you were a Danish dame back in the day, at least you got a lovely Danish pastry after being flogged on the street by a random stranger. And I guess you should be grateful that they were, of course, gentle.

Fastelavnsbolle are the main food associated with the holiday. They’re these very specific type of Danish pastry that comes with whipped cream in the middle.

Mmmm… There’s a recipe to make your own if you click this photo.

The reason that Fastelavn is considered the Danish Halloween is because on Fastelavn Sunday children dress up in costumes and go door to door. Instead of saying “trick or treat,” they sing a little song (awesome video below) which basically has the same message: give me a treat (read: bolle) or I’ll make trouble.

So now go out and have yourselves a happy Fastelavn!

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21 thoughts on “Are You Ready to Party?

  1. I didn’t know about this Danish tradition! It sounds like fun … except the women-getting-(gently)-flogged aspect, of course, and not sure what I would have done if I’d been woken up as that Dad was. 😉 Thanks for the very interesting post!

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    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it! I’m surprised there’s not a similar tradition in Norway. So many of the holidays seem to be similar between the two countries.

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      • I’ve been meaning to ask my husband that very thing — I haven’t experienced anything similar in the time I’ve been here, but as an older expat (read: grandma!) I haven’t had some of the first-hand experiences that others have enjoyed. Your posts about Danish traditions are always so interesting, and I love picking Jan’s brain about the similarities with Norway. I’ll let you know if there is anything similar! 🙂

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      • My husband says that of course there’s this tradition in Norway; he has great memories of hitting his parents awake when he was a rambunctious toddler and single-digit boy. I loved hearing him describe those memories from 60 years ago! (Thank you for sparking that conversation!) 🙂

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      • That’s fantastic! I can imagine it would be quite fun for kids to turn the tables a bit.

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  2. Wow, Danish people really like hitting stuff, huh? Who knew? 😉 That video is so crap 🙂 You’d think the people who invented Lego could have done a slightly better job… 😉

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      • I’m not sure if this comment was for me or for Expat Eye, but just so we’re all on the same page: I’m a really big fan of this video. I love that it’s an actual little boy singing, and I love the way he sings the song and the very cute and explanatory illustrations. It cracks me up every time. That’s why I posted it, so everyone else would get to laugh as well. Now, it may not be funny/cute in the same way if you haven’t heard or don’t know what the Fastelavn song is actually supposed to sound like. (He sings it a little slower than usual.)

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    • Cool! I’m glad you liked the post. That’s so interesting that you’re coming here to learn about the cuisine, as Denmark isn’t traditionally known for it’s high cuisine. But I know they’re doing some interesting thing with local ingredients lately (NOMA specifically is identified with this trend). What will you be studying?

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      • My plans are a blank slate, really. I’m open to exploring whatever I find, and whatever locals are willing to recommend. As much as I enjoy French cooking, Italian cooking, etc. (and truly, I do enjoy them), I think the high profile of some cuisines comes at the cost of other locales that also have interesting foods to share with willing travelers. Can’t wait to test this theory!

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      • Well it sounds like a great theory! I can’t recommend much, though. Since eating out is so expensive here, we do it rarely. But I’d definitely try any “new Nordic” cuisine. It’s supposed to be the new specialty of Scandinavia and looks to local ingredients and the traditional meals of the region. Plus, you get to eat things like cloudberries. 🙂

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    • Hehe really? I have talked to other expats about that phenomenon. I think it just comes from living with certain traditions your whole life. You never have cause to learn about what they really mean. It’s the same for me in the US. But as an expat, we learn about these traditions from the outside and so learn all about their history, etc. Thanks for linking to your blog. Can’t wait to check it out!

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    • Hah, yeah, the flogging is the most interesting part of the whole holiday, I think. It’s just so unusual. I haven’t heard of it being used in any other holiday before. And I think at this point it’s one of those traditions that’s totally removed from its original roots. So now it has nothing to do with fertility and is just a fun way for kids to turn the tables on their parents one day a year.

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