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Celebrating Danish Customs: Fastelavn

Fastelavn is an extremely old traditional Danish carnival custom celebrated in February.  In 2004 Fastelavn will be held on Sunday, February 22nd.

In earlier days Fastelavn marked the beginning of a period of fasting. It was the day when you prepared yourself for fasting (Lent) by eating as much as possible. Fastelavn also meant having a lot of fun - playing games, dressing up and partying.

While many of the customs have survived, most people no longer fast on Fastelavn, however children still wear costumes and play the traditional Fastelavn games. One of these is the so-called "beating of the barrel" or "knocking the cat out of the barrel" game. In medievil times this game was taken very seriously - a live cat would be placed in a barrel, and the barrel was beaten with sticks until it broke and the cat escaped. It was then chased out of the town, and people believed that it would take the collective bad luck and evil spirits of the town with it. 

These days the game is symbolic and definitely not played with live animals. Children gather around a barrel (filled with candy and fruit and usually decorated with black cats), which hangs from the ceiling or from a tree (depending on the game being played indoors or outdoors). They then take turns hitting the barrel with a wooden club until the barrel finally breaks. The lucky child causing the barrel to fall apart is crowned "the King or Queen of cats" and is given a golden paper crown.

Fastelavn buns are a popular seasonal treat. Made from pastry dough and decorated with icing, they can be found in virtually any bakery or konditori at this time of year. In the traditional Fastelavn song (which every Danish child knows by heart), young rascals demand the famous buns from their neighbours, sweetly threatening to "make trouble".

Another Fastelavn activity is going from door to door in the neighborhood singing and then collecting candy or money - very similar to the American tradition of "trick or treating" on Halloween.








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Last modified: April 03, 2002