Shrovetide falls on different days each year because – as a legacy from Catholic times – it must begin 40 fast-days before Easter. Quinquagesima Sunday can therefore at the earliest fall on 1 February and at the latest on 7 March.
Shrovetide is a children’s festival, they dress up – usually on Quinquagesima Sunday – and go around with their collection tins which they try to get filled with money. They are given money when they have rung the bell and sing to those who open the door:
‘Boller op, boller ned, boller i min mave,
hvis jeg ingen boller får, så laver jeg ballade’
(‘Buns up, buns down, buns in my tummy,
If I don’t get any buns, I’ll make trouble’)
The buns are a legacy from the days when this food constituted symbolic capital, because many people partly lived on the breadline, partly rarely got pastry. Today, when it is not the amount of food that distinguishes feast day from every day, the buns have therefore been replaced by money. However, Shrovetide buns, which are sold in the bakers’ shops in the weeks around Shrovetide, remain a favourite treat for both adults and children.
Often Shrovetide rods, i.e. birch branches decorated with sweets, little presents, etc, are used to decorate the home or give to the children. The Shrovetide rod was originally a fertility symbol, because the new-leaved branch is the epitome of the budding spring.
During Shrovetide, the children ‘tilt at the cat in the barrel’, i.e. they hit a suspended barrel filled with sweets and other goodies with clubs; the child who knocks a hole in the barrel is chosen as the ‘King’ or ‘Queen of Cats’.
The Origins of the Shrovetide Custom
The background to this custom is that according to popular belief the cat was the companion of witches and demons and therefore ‘charged’ with evil. Shrovetide fell at the time of year when the first preparations for the vital crops began and people therefore tried to protect themselves against evil by driving it away. Until the mid 19th century, this was in Denmark done by placing a live cat in a barrel which was beaten in order to make the cat run away when the barrel broke.
The Danish word for Shrovetide (‘fastelavn’), which was originally an adult festival, actually means ‘fast-evening’ and referred to the evening before the Christian Lent, which began on (Ash) Wednesday. However, the festivities already started on Quinquagesima (Pork) Sunday with lavish meals. After the Reformation, where the obligation to fast ceased, the Shrovetide celebrations continued until the following Sunday. There were mounted processions, various kinds of competitions and jousts as well as plays where Winter and Summer symbolically struggled to get the upper hand.