The Cat in the Barrel
by Finn Frode
Picture from 'Illustreret Tidende' c. 1860 (WikiMedia Commons)
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Now is the season of Fastelavn in Denmark and traditionally a very sad time for the black cats.
In Roman Catholic countries the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent is usually the time for carnival. Denmark went protestant in 1536, but our Shrovetide carnival or 'Fastelavn' is still celebrated, although nowadays it's mainly for the children. During carnival things are turned upside down, and so on the morning of Fastelavn Sunday Danish children will still flog their parents out of bed with bundles of twigs. The parents are supposed to be fast asleep when the children arrive with their decorated twigs and offer the duvets a good beating.
Like this many of the Danish Fastelavn customs seem to be rooted in heathen fertility rites and have survived for more than a thousand years despite all efforts by church and government to squash them. This time of the year the peasants had very little work to do and since food storage was running low and maybe soon would become unfit for eating, what better than throw a big party before the Lent started, no matter what the preacher and the squire said...
Sadly there has been an element of animal abuse in many of our local customs. The main event of on Fastelavn Monday is to 'slå katten af tønden', which means 'striking the cat out of the barrel'. These days it's just a wooden barrel filled with candy and the children in turn will beat it until it disintegrates. The child who knocks out the bottom causing the candy to spill out is entitled 'Cat Queen', whereas knocking down the very last piece of the barrel secures the title of 'Cat King'. Winning is considered a great honour and both are properly crowned on top of the costumes they already wear.
But in the old days until 1830 or so, a live black cat would have been placed in the barrel. After some beating the bottom went out and the terrified cat escaped, only to be mercilessly beaten to death by the festive crowd. It was clearly an animal sacrifice and supposed to kill evil symbolised by the black cat. As described elsewhere, this kind of cruel superstition was not uncommon in Europe, often in connection with witch-hunts.
Thankfully the only cat involved nowadays is the one painted on the outside of the barrel, but although I enjoy the modern version of the tradition as much as anybody, it still makes me sad thinking of all the cats that were killed in every village of the country year after year.