Fastelavn (Carnival in Denmark)

Fastelavn (Carnival in Denmark)
In February or early March, Western Christians around the world celebrate Carnival, a festive season that occurs before Lent. The term Carnival is traditionally used in predominantly Roman Catholic countries. In the historically Lutheran nations, such as Denmark, the celebration is typically referred to as Fastelavn.

The word Fastelavn derives from Old Danish fastelaghen, which means “fast-evening”, or the eve of Lent. It has cognates in other Germanic languages, including Dutch, Estonian and Limburgish. Fastelavn has been celebrated in Denmark ever since it became a Protestant nation. It occurs on the Sunday or Monday before Ash Wednesday.

Carnival in Denmark is sometimes described as a Nordic Halloween because on this day, children dress up in costume and gather treats for the Carnival feast. Another popular custom among the children is called the fastelavnsris. It is a switch that children use to symbolically flog their parents to wake them up on the morning of Fastelavn. Fastelavnsris come in many shapes and forms, differing from area to area.

Traditional events associated with Fastelavn include slå katten af tønden (“hit the cat out of the barrel”), which is somewhat similar to the Mexican piñata. A wooden barrel with an image of cat on it is filled with candy and sometimes oranges. Children take turns to hit the barrel with sticks until all the candy spills out and the entire barrel is broken. In the medieval times, there was a real black cat in the barrel, and beating the barrel was a ritual designed to protect the community against evil.

In many countries, Carnival is associated with pancakes. In Denmark, however, a popular baked good eaten during Fastelavn is fastelavnsbolle (“Fastelavn bun”). It is a round sweet roll covered with icing and sometimes filled with whipped cream. Similar buns are eaten in Sweden and other Nordic countries.

Fastelavn must not be confused with the Copenhagen Carnival. The latter is a three-day carnival event held in Copenhagen’s Fælledparken on and around Whitsun (the Pentecost Sunday). It occurs in late May or early June and has nothing to do with the liturgical season of Lent.


Photo: lille-ursus




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