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Fastelavn in Copenhagen

Events, Kid Friendly — By Jane Graham on February 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Sunday March 6 is Fastelavn in Denmark, a festival for dressing up and eating plenty of cakes and candy: After Christmas, it is the high point in the Danish family calendar.

For Danish kids, Fastelavn is akin to Halloween. Not only do they get to dress up as superheroes and princesses, they also get to share an entire bucket of candy.

Similar to the Fassnacht of Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland as well as to the Mardi Gra carnivals of catholic nations, Fastelavn is a festival to mark the imminent beginning of Lent. It is marked with special buns filled with cream, custard and chocolate and a carnival tradition of elaborate costumes. The most unique aspect of the Scandinavian Fastelavn, however, is to ‘Slå katten fra tønden’ (hit the cat out of the barrel): There are no actual cats in the barrel, of course, but there is a big stick to hit it, with candy released when the barrel breaks—much like a Mexican piñata. The first boy/girl to break the barrel are then christened carnival king and queen respectively, and honored with a crown.

Nobody seems entirely in agreement as to where Fastelavn originated. Some say that it has its roots in Catholic, pre-reformation Denmark, while the Fastelavn tradition of hitting the barrel is believed to have made its way to protestant Denmark via Dutch workers who were invited to settle on the island suburb of Amager by King Christian IV in the 1600s.

Among the public Fastelavn arrangements for families and children taking place in and around Copenhagen over the celebratory weekend are those at Amager Museum in Store Magleby near Dragør and Humlebæk’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Amager Museum starts its Fastelavn preparations the Sunday before with the chance to experience old-fashioned preparations, including watching the experienced barrel maker paint the wooden barrel and viewing the special trimmings worn by the horses during the festivities. There is also folk music at 3pm and the museum’s cafe will be open: Admission is DKK 30 for adults (the usual museum entry fee).

On the following day (March 7), the museum is open for barrel hitting from 1pm-5.30pm (with free entry) as well as to enjoy warm refreshments in the cafe and view the exhibition of Fastelavn arrangements of times gone by. Don’t miss walking down to the little town’s main street, however, where a Fastelavn barrel is beaten at a gallop; in accordance with old local tradition, riders will thunder through the old seaside town of Store Magleby on horseback.

To mark the last day of US artist Walton Ford’s well-received exhibition of fantastic animal drawings, the children’s wing of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen has worked an animal theme into this year’s Fastelavn celebrations. From 11am until 5.30pm on Sunday March 6, all young attendees are invited to dress as their favorite animals to hit the barrel at 2pm.

Top image of children hitting the Fastelavn barrel (1937) courtesy of the Royal Danish Library’s archives; Photo of Fastelavn buns courtesy of Tomasz Sienicki /Wikimedia.

Tags: carnivals, Traditional festivals
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