This week, in addition to most kids being off from school for “vinterferie” (winter vacation), we’re also celebrating Fastelavn in Denmark. Fastelavn is basically the Danish form of carnival, which exists in many more or less similar forms across the globe (from the famous carnival in Brazil to Mardi Gras in New Orleans all the way to Fasching in Germany). In Germany, we even call it the fifth season. Carnival or Fastelavn marks the transition from winter to spring – even though this week feels like it’s still the middle of cold, dark winter! – and, in the Christian calendar, also means the beginning of Lent.
Fastelavn is a colorful, fun time for kids and grown-ups alike, with dress-up parties and fun games to play – and of course my beloved “fastelavnsboller”, pastries filled with delicious cream. There are some special traditions and customs surrounding Fastelavn in Denmark – here’s a quick overview.
Slå katten af tønden (literally: “beat the cat out of the barrel”)
This is a kids’s game which resembles a pinata – a wooden barrel is filled with sweets and hung for kids to hit with sticks until it breaks and the sweets come raining down. Whoever manages to break the barrel is “king of cats” (kattekonge) or “queen of cats” (kattedronning).
Another tradition says to decorate birch twigs, often with ribbons or little figurines. It’s the exclusive right of children to wake their parents on Sunday morning by hitting the bed (or, hopefully softly, their parents) with these twigs.
My absolute favorite part of Fastelavn! If there’s one thing the Danes love, it’s to assign special food/ drink items to different occasions and holidays (I’m thinking about lune hveder for Great Prayer Day, kransekage for New Year’s, and of course all the Christmas food). Of course, Fastelavn is no exception: we get delicious buns! There’s even a poem/ song about them:
“Fastelavn er mit navn,
boller vil jeg have.
Hvis jeg ingen boller får,
så laver jeg ballade.
Boller op, boller ned
boller i min mave.
Hvis jeg ingen boller får,
så laver jeg ballade.”
This basically translates to: “My name is Fastelavn, and I want buns. If I don’t get buns, I’ll cause trouble. Buns up, buns down, buns in my tummy. If I don’t get buns, I’ll cause trouble.” A perfectly understandable sentiment in my opinion! (Quick poll: am I the only one who’s immediately reminded of a certain quote from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back?)
There are two different types of fastelavnsboller: “gammeldags” (i.e. old school) buns are made of a yeast-based dough and filled with buttercream and topped off with chocolate. The modern version is closer to a classic Danish, with a puff pastry-like dough and a lighter cream filling, often topped with confectioner’s sugar. There are also some varieties with jam filling (or a mix of jam and cream) and icing (third picture above). In my opinion, they’re all pretty awesome, but you decide which is your favorite! If you need some inspiration, here’s a taste test of Copenhagen’s best fastelavnsboller, and if you’d like to try and bake your own, try this recipe for the old school version (in English).
Are you dressing up for Fastelavn? Or are you – like me – just all about the boller?!