Fastelavn – The Danish Shrovetide Tradition

Happy Fastelavn everyone!

So what are the Danish traditions surrounding Shrovetide, you may ask? Well, not all of them are originally that ‘hyggelige’ as we say here in Denmark, but have evolved to be just that. In short, it is a mix of Halloween, Mardi Gras, and good old folklore. Essentially, it is like the carneval in Rio as the party before Lent, a remnant of when Denmark was a Catholic nation (we became Protestant in 1536), to munch on all the good stuff before giving it all up and fasting until Easter. These days we don’t fast but Danes will never forego a chance to eat good food or have a party so despite the Protestant church’s attempts to stop the tradition it has lived on. I will highlight the most common parts starting with what is pictured above – the shrovetide buns!

Fastelavnsboller – Shrovetide buns

If there is anything which can create tension on this feastday it is the notion of what the perfect bun is. Is it the one much like a Danish pastry? The one filled with custard and whipped cream? Or the one made of a yeast dough and filled with custard and sometimes raisins? The troops are sharply drawn and we will judge hard on whoever prefers a different version! Pictured are two versions, the yeast dough version (white icing) and the whipped cream version (pink icing). The first one is what comes closest to the original shrovetide bun known since the Middle Ages, the latter versions are only some 100 years old when both sugar and cream, and stoves!, became more common in ordinary households. In fact, the oldest recipe found for the whipped cream version dates to after WW2.

Most Danes will eat their preferred version here on Fastelavn Sunday though if we held completely true to tradition, we should actually wait until Tuesday, known as White or Fat Tuesday beacuse of the white flour and the fatty foods. This is the same tradition as Mardi Gras is derived from as Mardi Gras literally means Fat Tuesday. The tradition is also upheld across the waters in Sweden, where they celebrate Fettisdagen (also literally Fat Tuesday) and with their own version of the shrovetide bun called ‘semlor’ which is filled with marcipan, cardamom, and cream. This special Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday being the first day of Lent where Catholics go to church and have ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday sprigs dusted in their hair as a blessing. As a very easy-going Protestant and also rather Atheist country we skip that and stay with the party and food.

Trick or Treating and ‘Slå katten af tønden’ – literally: beating the cat in the barrel

This ghastly tradition derives from when everyone was scarred of the Plague and a folk tradition saying that killing a black cat could save the village from the Plague because a black cat was the Devil’s assistant. Sad to say, Danes have therefore tortured and killed many black cats throughout history and it was not until the 1830s that we swapped the real cat in the barrel for paper cutouts and filled the barrels with candy and fruits, much like a piñata. This also marks the change from this being a grown-up party to being a children’s tradition as now children will dress up in costumes and hope to be crowned the Cat King or Cat Queen. Traditions vary here, but most seem to believe the one who breaks the barrel and makes the candy fall out is Cat Queen and the one who beats off the final piece of wood is Cat King.

The costume tradition is much like the carneval in Venice in origins, and I have personally dressed up in very diverse ways like a musketeer complete with swirly moustache, feathered hat, and fencing sword, Tinkerbell, Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtes (I loved pizza too), and a nurse. The resemblance to Halloween comes when children in groups go trick or treating like in America which is called ‘raslen’ here in Denmark. We sing and make silly faces and get either candy, fruit, or sometimes even loose change! Nowadays, many children celebrate at their kindergardens or schools so it is rare to see groups of children rummaging around the streets in their costumes. At least around apartment buildings where I live.


The last tradition we uphold is the tradition of the children in the household grapping a bunch of birch sprigs and beating (yes, beating!) their parents and their bed in order to provide fertility. Birch is a fertility symbol and on farms many also went to the barns with livestock to pass on the luck there as well. Nowadays, we mostly just buy the sprigs or make them ourselves and dress them up in coloured feathers, cat cutouts, candy, and trim, and put them in vases in hope of making the sprigs bloom before Easter.

Denmark is a very old country and we have so many traditions but sadly many people don’t know where they come from or why they are here, and I have always loved seeing how our peculiar traditions also have similarities to other cultures and how we are all connected in that way. Some traditions I am glad have evolved, like swapping the real cat for a paper version, but I still think it is important to understand why and how they began. Now we can celebrate the hygge which is left and go munch on our preferred bun (mine is the yeast and old-fashioned one).


En lille gennemgang af nogle af vores søde og gamle fastelavnstraditioner.

Men det store spørgsmål trænger sig på: hvilken fastelavnsbolle vælger I? Den gammeldags, den med fløde eller den som wienerbrød? Jeg er mest til den gammeldags men kan en gang imellem klare den med fløde.

Håber I alle får en dejlig dag blandt kattekonger og kattedronninger.

About Ann-Cathrine 39 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.