It’s Lent. The Lenten season. How you believe and what you believe and how you exercise those beliefs is between you and yours – not for me to question – unless it impacts my family. Please refrain from using weapons to share your faith, speaking from experience it converts few. But as far as modern celebrations, public holidays and personal traditions evolve, I have always been interested in the why and the how from their basis they form. All the more so now in my newly expatriated version of self, how those resonate within different cultures is especially remarkable – and now I’ll remark on it. (You knew that right?) As it turns out, very little investigation required, determined that the origins of the English word Lent emerge from the German, Dutch and Old English words for spring or the coming of spring, a lengthening of days. (I can seriously feel them changing daily here in Denmark. Lengthening. Hver dage a little bit more sun in the morning and a little bit more sun in the afternoon – every day. For this I am faithful, sommer in Denmark will be amazing.) The word Lent as it translates from Latin into our modern romance languages relates more to its respected historical and modern timing – 40 days. In its most generic distillation, Lent is the 40 days before Easter and starts with Ash Wednesday and is generally marked by a personal sacrifice – giving something up. Did you give something up this year for Lent? Sugar? Wine? Watch this and get back to me how that went….but as I said before – to each his own.
To me, what is almost as interesting as the cultural significance in your Lenten practices are the events that precede the penitenten Lenten days. WOOT WOOT! It’s Mardi Gras y’all! Laissez les bons temps roullez! Oh sorry. I’m not sure where that escaped from – maybe watching too many friends celebrate in multi-faceted bedecked and bejeweled style on Bourbon Street via my Facebook. I’ve never actually been there – but it looks amazing in its own right. Carnavale pops up in many cultures – scantily clad and costumed, bedazzled and parading – let it all hang out before we have to rein it all in. Personally I’m not quite ready in Februar to let it all hang out. Ask me again midsommer and I may feel differently. Too much good Danish brød and smør this vinter for me perhaps.
In Denmark at this time of year – like all of the holidays I have experienced here so far – there is a melding of modern Christian and medieval Viking culture. You will here the words God Jul wishing you a merry Christmas in December, but Jul was celebrated long before the heathens were converted, evidence of the cultural consolidation. At this time of year – Danes celebrate Fastelavn. Occuring this year during our strange Vinterferie, we really didn’t get a good grasp of all that is Danish about Fastelavn. But as I understand it, costumed children (not unsimilar to Halloween, which has only recently in the past decade taken on in Scandinavia) sing songs and go door to door for treats or money. Local bageris make their own version of the Fastelavn bolle – a yummy Danish version of fried dough. I have a theory that all cultures have a version of their own traditional fried dough and it is especially heightened at this time of year. (ie; Pączki, pancakes, donuts, churros, King Cake, fastelavn bolle, etc. etc.)
My favorite part of Fastelavn is the somewhat strange medieval corruption of the game “beat the cat out of the barrel.” (slå katten af tønden) Yes, you heard me. Something about knocking bad spirits, embodied by the cat (preferably black) out of a wooden barrel. They literally shoved a live cat in a wooden barrel, strung it up, sang songs and whacked the crap out of the barrel until the cat escaped or didn’t. If it escaped alive it was chased out of town to preserve the village from evil doings the coming year.
Essentially similar to whacking a piñata – the wooden barrel is full of candy and children take turns hitting it with their best shot one by one with a wooden bat of sorts. The first child to break the barrel open releasing the treats (which will be equally shared of course, this is a socialist country) is crowned the Kattedronning. The “Cat Queen.” Special, for sure, but not as coveted an award as the next, as evidenced by the sheer size of the faux crowns. The highly prized and generously faux-crowned title goes to the Kattekonge aka the “Cat King.” To earn this challenging and luckily-timed award, one must be up and have the last whack per se. For it is the one who knocks off the very last board of the barrel who can only be crowned the Kattekonge.
Call it beginner’s luck, but my wee lass came home with this penultimate crown. I met her off her train/bus commute home festooned in her gold and red crown and adorned in the widest grin. I will admit at first that I found it quite charming, but had no idea what she had accomplished. Not until our Danish contacts kept commenting how special and amazing and special and cool and special it was that she achieved said Kattekonge crowning. Children apparently go their whole lives hoping and striving for said title, but alas my wee lass got it on her first go. Now – just to be clear – she waited her turn and not until her 5th whack in the line did she lay into that last board and win her major award. Those who know her can only imagine her fierce determination to knock that thing off. Even the boys were impressed. Hugs and cheers from classmates, alongside more than a few covetous glances to be sure.
So this year, maybe we missed the costumes, didn’t even really sample all the fastelavn bolles, didn’t get to earn the candy or monies (we didn’t know the songs), but my kids will have forever memories of the season, especially my Kattekonge. Will we give something up for Lent? No. We have given much up to be here. Besides a disposal (I still really miss that), a comfy couch, a car that comfortably fits us all – we have given up the regularity of seeing good friends. Given up holidays and events with families. Passed on leading committees, making sports teams, dancing on stages. We have given up to be here. We have made our sacrifices, be it Lenten in determination or not. But what have we gained. It is still being clarified. But so far, I know it will have to include; experience, culture, empathy, people, adventure, tradition. Will they all be experiences and adventures that we choose. Maybe not. But part of us, they will be. And as Lent is a time of internal perspective, I can appreciate the introspection and inward turn in anticipation for longer days and the rebirth of the explorer inside of us all. Just wait. I am.