Danish Language Blog

Now Give That Cat a Blow! Posted by on Feb 19, 2012 in Traditions

Students trying to beat ”katten af tønden”. (Photo courtesy of Julie.)


er mit navn,
boller vil jeg have,
hvis jeg ingen boller får,
så laver jeg ballade.

is my name,
buns I want to have,
if I don’t get any buns,
I’ll kick up a row.

So goes the first verse of a song sung by children all over Denmark today. (Or a couple of days ago, as public kindergartens are closed on Sundays!) The children are udklædt (dressed up, literally ’dressed out’), wearing colourful kostume|r (fancy dresse|s) and face-paint. For a while, they are allowed to be beautiful prinsesse|r (princesse|s), fierce and proud pirat|er (pirates), cuddly dyr (animal|s), or their favourite cartoon hero. In many places, the disguised children sing the song at doorsteps in their neighbourhood, occasionally carrying fastelavnsris (birch branches decorated with paper bits) and rattling their sparebøsse|r (saving box|es). In no way do they yield until that newly-wed young couple or friendly old man next door gives them some money, slik (sweets), or indeed a bun!

If this rings a bell, you’re absolutely right: This, my ladies and gentlemen, is the original Danish version of “trick or treat”! For generations, Danish children have been looking forward to fastelavn (Shrovetide), which is always the 7th Sunday before Easter. This, traditionally, has been the one time of the year where they could become the creatures of their fancy and enjoy the thrill of asking strangers for candy. No wonder that the Danes have embraced Halloween in recent years…

Dressing up for fastelavn isn’t reserved for children, though. Young people living in students hostels or in shared houses usually make big parties on this day, donning outfits of the most creative kind. (I remember having seen a walking chocolate bar and a talking tube of toothpaste, among other things!) Sometimes, the evening’s most original get-up is being rewarded by a special prize – which might very well be a quantity of alcohol…

The climax of a fastelavn party – be it in a students’ dorm or in a kindergarten – is a game called at slå katten af tønden (beating the cat out of the barrel). This is the Danish version of the Hispanic piñata. But instead of a piñata doll, a tønde (barrel) – or something similar, like a paper box – has been hung down from the ceiling. The exited kings, prostitutes, dogs, rabbits and Hollywood stars all line up to get their chance to deal the barrel a deadly blow with a wooden kølle (club). Everyone gets a try, and it is repeated until someone finally succeeds in smashing the container to pieces and liberating its ”cat”, which usually is a bunch of slik (sweets, candy).

In the Middle Ages, when Denmark was Catholic, fastelavn or fasteaften (Lent evening) marked the evening before the faste (Lent), where everyone committed him- or herself to abstinence from physical pleasures (like eating!) for a long period of time (fourty days, says my dictionary). Once upon a time there even was a real cat in the barrel, or so they say…

However, as with many traditions in Denmark, the somewhat austere origins of fastelavn are not given much consideration today, where people are happily busy enjoying life on this special day…

The fastelavn song

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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.