Some wait in anticipation, hoping that the groundhog will not see his shadow. Others force bulbs and blossoms—a wonderful, yet time-consuming affair.
But there is a jollier way to celebrate the promise of spring’s return: Fastelavn, a Scandinavian Mardi Gras celebration. This holiday bridges the end of the Christmas season and the return of spring.
Drenched in pagan traditions, this holiday is chock full of fun. In Medieval times a black cat was placed in a barrel, which was whacked with sticks until it broke. The cat would be chased out of the village, hence chasing away bad luck, or winter, so spring could return. Today, this is understandably unacceptable. Instead, a barrel or a piñata is used, and the poor black cat is replaced by small toys and candy. In Denmark you can become the Queen or King of Cats; the former hits the piece of the barrel that allows all to spill out, and the latter is the one who breaks away the barrel’s last piece.
Another old custom includes decorating spring branches using ribbon, feathers, and sometimes candy. Hundreds of years ago, children would flog their parents with branches, known as fastelavnsris, their antics serving as an alarm clock on Fastelavn morning. The tradition continued to recent times; at a recent Fastelavn celebration in Brooklyn, a Danish woman spoke of hitting her parents with branches as a child.
Christian traditions have also been incorporated. In Catholic countries there is Carnival. The Lutheran corollary is Fastelavn. Like at Carnival, one dresses in costume. As the Lenten time of fasting approached, many Lutheran countries would have a meal before Ash Wednesday that included a dish of rich dairy products, often made into pancakes. Fastelavnsboller are another incarnation of a food that incorporates rich dairy ingredients. Fastelavnsboller are not only made with eggs, but also stuffed with whipped cream.
It is said that Norwegian students who had studied in Paris in the mid-19th century brought the costumed balls and parades they witnessed at Carnival back to the old country. In Christiana (Oslo), masked balls became annual events. In 1894, the Grand Hotel was built, and its Rococo Hall hosted an annual Carnival ball until 1957, when a fire destroyed the building.
These balls became so ingrained into the culture that composer Johan Svendsen wrote pieces inspired by this festivity: Norsk Kunstnerkarneval and Karneval in Paris, as well as the song for the opening procession of the carnival ball, Svendsens Festpolonaise. Norwegian great Grieg even succumbed to the magic of Carnival, composing “aus dem Karneval” (folkelivsbilleder Op. 19).
How can anyone resist the pull of this wonderful holiday? If you’d like to experience it and live in the New York tri-state area, come to the annual Fastelavn sponsored by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum in partnership with Brooklyn Lodge Sons of Norway. Come in costume, decorate branches (and take them home), try your hand at breaking the piñata to become the Queen or King of Cats, and savor Fastelavnsboller.
This year’s event will be held on Saturday, February 20, from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Vesuvio’s Restaurant’s Party Room, located at 7305 Third Ave. All-inclusive price: $35.00 for adults, $20.00 ages seven to 17, $15.00 for those under seven. Reservations encouraged. (718) 748-5950.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.