Roll out the barrel

SECM and Sons of Norway Brooklyn Lodge celebrate Fastelavn with costumes and games

Lisa Martinsen and Sylvia Reich celebrate Fastelavn as an adorable pair of goth-punks.

Photo: Ellen Lindstrom
Lisa Martinsen and Sylvia Reich make an adorable pair of goth-punks.

Lagertha Aslaug
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Masks and mayhem, feathers and fun—it must be time for Fastelavn. For close to a decade the Scandinavian East Coast Museum has been holding a Fastelavn celebration at the Danish Athletic Club. Although all Scandinavian countries participate in Fastelavn rituals, it is the Danes who have made it into an art form, with a merging of spring rites, Mardi Gras, New Year’s, and a little bit of Halloween thrown in.

In terms of spring rituals, branches are decorated with feathers, ribbons, candy, and trinkets. In the not-so-distant past children would hit their parents with the Fastelavn branches. And even further back, Dane and SECM Fastelavn guest John Rasmussen told the revelers, “women would be hit with branches by males to increase their fertility.” Sauna anyone? Is that where the branch-hitting portion of the great sweat began?

In terms of Mardi Gras, in Denmark people dress in costumes, masks, wigs, and other disguises and parades proliferate. Various New Year’s traditions incorporate ways to get rid of bad luck, through loud noises, such as fireworks or banging on pots and pans. In the case of Fastelavn a black cat would be put into a barrel. The barrel would be hit until it broke and then the cat would tumble out and run for his life as the townsfolk chased him out of their village, thus chasing away their bad luck. This old tradition has been transformed into the use of a barrel or piñata, sometimes in the shape of a cat or with a picture of a cat. In Denmark children go dressed in costume from door to door requesting Fastelavnsboller (sweet rolls filled with cream). They say (crudely translated) “Fastelavn is my name and if you do not give me the boller, I will play a trick on you,” reminiscent of Halloween trick-or-treating.

Photo: Ellen Lindstrom Lois Hedlund will remain asleep until spring.

Photo: Ellen Lindstrom
Lois Hedlund will remain asleep until spring.

The SECM’s event included all of these traditions. About 65 attended, many in costumes: a Renaissance wench with a fancy feather-capped man, flappers, courtly figures, the Snow Queen, a magician, goth punks, Thing #1, a Viking, Olaf the Snowman, Dracula, a cowboy, Cleopatra, a mother of the bride, a hippie, and a woman in pajamas who carried a sign asking to be woken up when winter is over. Even the event’s accordion player, Ellen Lindstrom, got into the act, wearing a crown and wreath vibrant with Mardi Gras colors.

Fastelavn is also a time to make new friends. SECM Vice President Arnie Bergman explained, “The event had a very enthusiastic crowd with a lot of participation. Two ladies at my table, Josephine and Anne, attended for the first time and said they will encourage their friends to join us next year.” And the event drew locals, as well as folks from Staten Island and Long Island. But the person who had traveled the farthest was Ellen Willumsen Ryen dressed as Hippie Chic. Actually, she had been visiting her mother in Brooklyn and it happened to coincide with the event. “And it was great that she could finally attend, as she has heard about the event for years from her mother, Elsie Willumsen. She has also seen many photos of her mom in a variety of her Fastelavn costumes: the Queen Ma’am, Lady Gaga, and this year the mother of the bride. So, it was great to have this mother and daughter team join us together this year,” enthused Victoria Hofmo, SECM President.

Bob Carlsen, aka Olaf the Snowman, was the Director of Games. Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen was a game like musical chairs, without the chairs. Instead, one had to stand on paper mermaids—images of Carlsen in drag. Another hit was tiss-you. Participants had to empty an entire box of tissues one at a time. First one done won. The prize for Best Costume went to a flapper, Kimberly Breiland.

The event ended with dessert and a group rendition of “God Bless America” and “Oh When the Saints.” For several years, this Fastelavn has been co-sponsored by SON Brooklyn Lodge and their support has strengthened the event. Elizabeth Theofan sent a note the day after the event: “We just love Fastelavn. Thank you very much for making it happen every year.”

This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.