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How barbarian cat killers became benevolent cat kings

Dress up, hit a barrel filled with candy, and gorge yourself on cream-filled buns. This is what characterizes the celebration of Shrovetide in Denmark on Sunday. The tradition, however, started out to be much more morbid and it involved smashing barrels with live cats in them.

Meet the Danes |   Updated: February 19th, 2020

Anne Thora Lykkegaard

Journalist

This coming weekend, it is possible that you’ll see Spiderman, princesses, animals, clowns, and robots roaming the streets of Copenhagen. The bakeries and supermarkets are already luring us in to buy the tempting buns filled with whipped cream, jam, or vanilla custard. But on Sunday, kids in costumes will be walking from house to house, ringing doorbells, and performing small songs in return for sweets and money.

It’s the time of Shrovetide, also called ‘Fastelavn’ in Danish. A Danish take on Halloween, but with a more nightmarish origin.

If the international animals’ right organization, PETA, had existed back in the 1600th Century in Denmark, they would have gotten furious about what was taking place at the farms and towns around the day of Shrovetide.

Fastelavn was, in the Christian tradition, a party which marked the beginning of a 40 day-long fast. But even though the fast was abolished in 1536, people continued celebrating Fastelavn.

The celebrating was, first and foremost, about eating and collecting food for the splendid dinner that the townsfolk enjoyed in the evening. The people collecting the food would dress up and go from house to house, singing songs in return for food. Just like the kids do today.

Another part of the tradition was to smash a barrel from horseback. Each farm presented a rider and a horse, and then they jousted with a club by hitting a barrel tied up between two poles. However, inside the barrel was a living cat. The one who smashed a big enough hole in in the barrel for the cat to get out won the joust and received the title, ‘the cat king’.

Back in the days, Shrovetide was celebrated by smashing a barrel with a living cat inside. (Illustration: Knud Gamborg - Illustreret Tidende Nr. 646. 11/2-1872, s. 193.)

With the title of cat-king, came a reward. The cat-king got exempt from paying taxes for an entire year. Or back in that time, it wasn’t the rider, but the farm that the rider represented in the joust that didn’t have to pay taxes.

Back then, the view on animals was quite different. Cats were often seen as the companion of witches and as a symbol of evil, which was why it was put into the barrel to suffer and eventually die from the beatings.

Cat-kings and queens

However, it’s not the 16th century anymore, and the barbarous tradition has changed.

When the kids gather at kindergartens, schools, or at the local sports centers to hit the barrel, they arrive all dressed up. The past years Anna and Elsa from the Disney movie, Frozen, have been quite popular. But you will surely always spot a Batman, Superman, ninja, and a clown among the costumes.

A big change, however, is the part about the cats. Views about animals have changed, and instead, the barrel is filled with candy and decorated with masks and black cats made out of carton. So, in some way the cat part is still there, and the game is also still called beat the cat out of the barrel. ‘Slå katten af tønden.’

A cat-king is still announced and wins a golden cardboard crown when the last board of the barrel is beaten off. And to make things equal, a cat-queen is also announced. The cat-queen crown goes to the person, who strikes the barrel in such a way that the bottom falls off and all the candy falls on the ground.

When the games are finished, the kids eat the candy and go off to ring the doorbells in a quest to bring home more candy and money.

Creamy buns

But celebrating Fastelavn doesn’t quite stick to one day. The celebration of fastelavn usually begins in late January or in the beginning of February, depending on which day Fastelavn falls on. Usually that day is a Sunday in February.

Supermarkets and bakeries fill their shelves with three varieties of special buns called fastelavnsboller.

(Fastelavnsbolle filled with whipped cream. Photo: Tomasz Sienicki / WikiCommons)

The old kind, called ‘Gammeldags Fastelavnsbolle’, looks like a bun. It’s filled with vanilla custard and has a splash of sugar coating on the top.

Then there’s the one for those who are really hungry. It’s a puff-pastry bun filled with either jam and whipped cream or vanilla custard and whipped cream.

For the lighter version of the puff-pastry, you can get one with just custard or jam.

So, if you’re not into dressing up as your favorite superhero or villain, you can go to the nearest baker instead, gorge on the fastlavnsboller, and probably have your door rung by singing kids. 

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