Fastelavn (the children’s carnival): Denmark, ca. 1930

This picture appears in numerous places around the net with the caption “Danish children trick-or-treating.” While the thought of children dressing up in scary costumes and going door to door begging for treats sounds every bit like Hallowe’en, the Danish tradition of Fastelavn (carnival), celebrated in February, has more in common with Mardi Gras. The Danish word means “the evening before the fast,” and represents the night before the beginning of of the Lenten season. The word ‘carnival’ stems from a Latin expression meaning “farewell to meat,” and originally was a period of celebration and feasting which preceded the six weeks of fasting and penance which marks the lead-up to Easter.

The children in the picture above are holding “raslebøsse”, or “rattle boxes” – small cans with a slotted top used to collect money. They go from house to house, calling “Fastelavn er mit navn” (my name is Fastelavn) and expect coins or candy; they also gorge themselves on “Fastelavn boller” or Lenten buns, which are cream filled sweet rolls covered with icing.

Danish children will also play “Slå katten af tønden” (beat the cat out of the barrel). A Pinata-like barrel decorated with black cats and stuffed with candy is hung, and costumed children are given a chance at breaking it. The child who first breaks the barrel and releases the candy is given the honorary title of “kattedronning” (queen of cats), while the child who knocks out the last piece of the barrel is dubbed “kattekongen” (king of cats).

While the barrel is now simply decorated, at one time it actually contained a black cat. Since these creatures were believed to harbor evil spirits, breaking the cat out of the barrel (whereupon the terrified creature would run off like a bat out of Hell), was said to banish evil to make way for spring.

Beating the cat out of the barrel, around 1866

Modern Fastelavn

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