Sunday, 6 March 2011

Danish life: Fastelavn

A couple of weeks ago my friends at emmerys were telling me about a festival on 6 March when children dressed up in pirate and princess costumes and beat a barrel with a stick. There was a picture drawing competition being held in the coffee shop and my son and I were invited to take part. We (or rather, I) sketched as I sipped my coffee, wondering what the festival was about and how much had been lost in translation. Pirates beating a barrel?!

Over the weeks I have done a little bit of research, listened to some amusing anecdotes and pieced together what fastelavn appears to be about and today we actually witnessed the barrel beating...

Fastelavn was originally the feast enjoyed before the lent fast. I guess in that respect it was a Christian or religious festival. At some stage the pagans took it over and introduced the beating of the barrel. The Danish phrase or slogan for this practice is slå katten af tønden, which means 'beat the cat out of the barrel'.

In times past a barrel containing a cat would be hung up for people to beat with a stick until the barrel broke and the cat escaped. The cat would, perhaps unsurprisingly, scarper. This superstitious ritual resulting in the fleeing feline was said to represent the warding off of evil spirits.

Nowadays, the health and well being of cats has prevailed and the practice has evolved so that the barrels contain candy and the children take it in turns to beat it. When the barrel is broken, the children all dive to the floor for a share of the loot. If you can imagine all the neighbourhood halloween treats being rained down upon children in a single strike, you get the picture!

As an outside observer, it did look like fun - at least for the children wielding the bats. I have to confess that I had expected the wooden barrel to have been replaced by a paper mâché model. But no, a wooden barrel hung from the ceiling and the children hit it with a wooden baseball bat! There were some fleeting moments of nervousness when the barrel would be swinging out of control across the room full of children, who incidentally weren't wearing hard hats. Maybe its just the ex-personal injury lawyer in me...

By far the most attractive aspect of this festival for me has been the fastelavnsbolle, the Danish pastry created for the occasion. The idea behind these buns comes from the original notion of the feast before the fast. Innocent enough from the outside, buried inside these pastry devils there can be fillings of cream, jam, chocolate - in sufficient quantity to put one off anything sweet for life.

Getting into the spirit of the festival, I can report that having witnessed the beating of the barrel I have also enjoyed a lovely chocolate feast this evening. As I lick my fingers clean, I vow not to eat chocolate for the next six weeks. It really was the feast before the fast...

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