The Danish Shrovetide tradition of hitting the cat out of the barrel
Does the Christmas last until Easter? No! In between is Shrovetide
One of the merry songs of Christmas in Scandinavia is a song where all the participants at the Christmas party, adults and children, are dancing in a long serpent, following a leader who takes them all through the many rooms of the house. All are singing:
Now it is Christmas! Now it is Christmas! And Christmas lasts until Easter. Now it is Christmas! Now it is Christmas! And Christmas lasts until Easter. But the song continues No! It isn't true. Because in between we have the Lent (or Shrovetide).
Shrovetide is one of the yearly holidays that is almost forgotten, or at least it is forgotten why it is celebrated. Shrovetide is not celebrated on the same date every year but it is most often sometimes in February and lasts for three days, Shrove Tuesday and the two days preceding it.
Earlier, when Christian religious traditions were kept more strict, then these three days were the last chance to party and eat in abundance. In particular it was not allowable to eat eggs during the next forty days, because the next forty days were the Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday and lasted until the Holy Easter Saturday. These forty days were the Lent that was devoted to fasting in commemoration of Christ's fasting in the wilderness.
The hens didn't know anything about the Lent, so what did people do with the eggs that were produced during those forty days? Well, some were boiled and preserved in vinegar so they could be consumed when the Lent was over. But oftentimes there were so many eggs that the excess of eggs was used to play with. The eggs were painted and decorated with colors, and various games in which one was playing with the eggs were developed over the centuries. The tradition of Easter Eggs was born.
At the Shrovetide it was formerly customary to attend to confession at the church, but it was also the last chance to party and eat all what would become banned during the next forty days.
In Denmark the Shrovetide rituals were merged with an ancient pagan tradition. In the Early Medieval Catholic days, then a live cat was put inside a wooden barrel. People of the village would beat on the barrel with bats and sticks, and if the cat wasn't beaten to death as the barrel crushed then it would flee the village almost scared to death. The purpose of chasing the poor cat out of the village was a protection against the evil. All the Shrovetide party activities were rather promiscuous, therefore it was performed partly in disguise, and there you are, ta-da: The carnival tradition was introduced.
The old traditional way of hitting the cat out of the barrel has of course changed. Today it is done by children who are dressed up in costumes while they hit the barrel full of fruits and goodies (comparable to a PiÃ±ata), and the one who knocks down the last piece of wood is appointed to The King of Cats and receives a golden paper crown and a prize.
Other Shrovetide traditions that Danish children do can be compared to the American Halloween tradition. The children go around in their costumes, sing a traditional song, and ask for money and goodies, and if they don't get any then they will do something bad as a revenge. But all the Scandinavian Shrovetide traditions take place in February instead of the November Halloween parties.