The history and the background of Carnival or Fastelavn
Carnival or “Fastelavn” as it is called in Denmark, is an age old tradition, and in the nordic countries it is celebrated with dressing up in fancy costumes,, a barrel decorated with a black cat and filled with goodies, a crown and a lot of cream buns. But why do we really celebrate Carnival?
In Denmark, the celebration Fastelavn, or Shrovetide depends on Easter. The celebration is not on a specific date, but always seven weeks before Easter.
It can only be Shrovetide between 1 February and 7 March. It is a prelude to Easter, like Advent is a prelude to Christmas. Mardi Gras is therefore included as a regular part of the church year.
Farewell to winter darkness
Many of the things that today are among the traditions of Halloween has roots in the Middle Ages. What today seems to be quite innocent carnival spirit, was much more seriously, magic and superstition of the time.
This fell in line with the other celebrations during the year, a way that people tried to be the master of nature's forces and lead them in a favorable direction. But for ages, the carnival celebration has symbolized parting with winter darkness, the old, unclean and the sinners and to welcome the spring, light, and the new life.
The word "carnival" comes from the German Vastel-avent, which translates to something along the lines of a “solid-night” - that night before the Christian fasting was to begin.
The tradition evolved quickly from a single night when you had a little extra good to eat, to a regular carnival, where people ate and drank and partied for several days. It is not without reason that Shrove Sunday and Shrove Monday in the middle ages were called something like Pork Sunday and bacon Monday.
Carnival was therefore originally the prelude to the Christian fasting. But as with so many other of the Christian festivals and anniversaries, there is a great divide between Carnival as an religious tradition and carnival as a popular tradition.
Carnival is the celebration before Lent begins. Previously there were three reasons for fasting. One would be to do the same as Jesus. The Bible tells that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert where he fasted for 40 days and he was subjected to various tests. (Luk.4,1-13). Therefore, the old tradition was that fasting should last for 40 days.
The second reason for fasting was in preparation for Good Friday the day when Jesus was crucified, and fasting always begins 40 days before Good Friday. Thirdly, it is about the people of the church previously thought that it was healthy to live austere life. It was a shame to waste and squander, and with 40 days of fasting people should learn to live a more . And with 40 days of fasting people should learn to live a more hard and austere life.
Days off instead of Christian Traditions
Over time the tradition of Carnival has lost its Christian influences, just like Christmas becomes less and less Christian. Easter, Pentecost and Ascension Day are for most people holidays and not so much to do with christian traditions. Very few people think much about what the day is all about.
Also when it comes to carnival, there are not many who think that the carnival tradition is linked to anything Christian, but the tradition originally was a preparation for good Good Friday.
The pagan festival
In ancient time, Carnival was originally a pagan spring and fertility celebration - a battle between winter and summer.
The pre-Christian rituals could thus be cavalry who fought against each other, one army symbolically dressed in winter coats, the other flowers and green branches. A symbol of the struggle between winter and summer.
Also the tradition of banging on a barrel with a cat in is an old tradition, and right up until the late 1800s there was actually a live cat in the barrel. Riders would pass by and bang on the barrel with cobs. In other parts it was a tradition with a live roadster or a live goose covered in soap, which was hung up by it´s legs and covered by soap, after which the riders of the cavalry rode past and tried to tear the poor gooses head off. This was no doubt a ritual to it was a ritual confrontation and a showdown with the forces of evil.
Also the whisk of fresh twigs that people make and decorate during carnival, is connected to fertility . When the young men struck the young girls with the twigs that were bursting with fresh buds, they transferred the fertility of the twigs and of nature to the girls.
Things turned upside down
At Shrovetide celebration turned many things upside down, and ordinary people be "kings" , thus the saying "cats king" - people dressed up and they could make various pranks, without being punished.
Today there are as many princesses, ballerinas and fairies among girls and among boys, we meet Superman, Spiderman and Batman. The ideals have changed over time.
Turn the cat of the barrel
To beat the cat of the barrel is a tradition that still maintained. It is still being celebrated both in the local neighbourhoods on Shrove Sunday and on Shrove Monday most children are still dressed up going to school or day care.
In ancient times it was cruel tradition to beat the cat out of the barrel, because often it was a real live cat inside the barrel. The cat should preferably be black and symbolized the dark forces in nature and in oneself.
The poor cat was considered to be an evil and wicked creature who was in league with the forces of evil, and it had to be the scapegoat and chased out of the village. Some places the cat was even killed when the poor thing beaten and confused tumbled out of the broken barrel. It was believed that when the cat itself was evil, it should once a year feel the evil on his own body. Today luckily for the cats, the only thing left of this cruel tradition i the picture of a black cat on the barrel.
A fusion of Christian and pagan traditionCarnival is therefore a good mix of things and traditions taken from different times in history. It has direct connection to Christianity, as it is the last night before the 40-day long fast, which is a prelude to Easter.
But the celebration itself as we know it today has not much to do with Christianity o; to dress up and to beat the cat out of the barrel has a background in what you would call the pagan tradition, a tradition that was associated with the forces of nature.
The final ingredient in carnival is the parting with winter and the symbols of fertility, like the whisk. In Denmark it is a tradition to serve with cream buns and a little carnival song.