Danes certainly know how to celebrate!
In countries like the UK and the US, we have one day of indulgence in the run-up to Lent and that’s Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday). We stuff our faces with pancakes to use up fat and sugar before the penitence of Lent (and because they’re delicious). Pancake Day has the same religious roots as the Danish festival of Fastelavn. However, Fastelavn has a different flavour to Pancake Day. Where most people in the UK and the US would really only celebrate for one meal, Danes definitely make an occasion of Fastelavn.
Fastelavn is rooted in Roman Catholicism. Before the Lutheran Reformation in 1536 the country was Roman Catholic and celebrated Carnival – a period of celebration before Lent. However, Denmark has forged its own traditions over the centuries and given this period its own, distinctly Danish characteristics. Even in an urban area like Copenhagen, the spirit and traditions of Fastelavn live on and are embraced by all generations of people.
Traditional celebrations can still be found on the island of Amager, where people go all out to celebrate. Thousands of people come to see the celebrations in Amager, in the towns and villages of Dragor, Ullerup and Store Magleby. They each hold day-long festivities. Musicians and horseriders parade through the area. They are given hot rum, which they pay for with a song. Once they’ve had their fill of rum, people on horseback dressed as knights swing batons at a barrel that is suspended from a rope like a pinata. Once the barrel has been thoroughly knocked down, a King and Queen of the barrel are appointed, whose job it is to open the Barrel Ball. Then it’s time to dance, drink, and generally be merry until everyone stumbles home happily.
How the children celebrate
Kids have their own celebrations too, waking up to Fasterlavnsris. These are bundles of twigs decorated and adorned with sweets, which they use to wake their parents up. Later on, they have a go at whacking a barrel out of the air too, wearing the cutest costumes. Sweets and toys come pouring out of the barrel and they scrabble to eat the delicious candy. Whoever managed to bring down the barrel is named either Cat King or Cat Queen, which must be the greatest honour when you’re a child.
Children also go from house to house in their costumes, singing for treats as we do at Halloween. The song they sing goes:
‘buns, up, buns down, buns in my tummy,
If I don’t get any buns, I’ll make trouble.’
However, people tend to hand out money now, rather than buns. Of course, these celebrations won’t be taking place this year because this is no ordinary year. Here’s to hoping that we can all celebrate this amazing festival next year in true Danish style. For the time being, we will have to make do with our delicious Shrovetide buns on February 16.