Friday, February 19, 2010

Bacchus on the Barrel

Fastelavn/ Carnival

In February when it's Fastelavn it is still common to beat the cat out of the barrel, in the old days it was a real cat, but now the barrel is filled with candy and other good stuff. Each Kindergarten has a celebration on our Fastelavns-Monday, where the children are dressed out and "beat the cat out of the barrel". And a cat-king or a cat-queen is elected.

But earlier were more customs around Fastelavn in Denmark, although most of those customs could not be compared to the customs in Mid- and South Europe, where a whole district or town is celebrating the carnival. A special custom was "Bacchus on the Barrel", especially celebrated in the Danish "South Sea" islands Lolland, Falster, but also at Sjælland, Funen and in South Jutland. This custom had many European common features. Everyone took part in this feast in the village, parish or town, but the custom died out in the late 1930s.

The archives can tell us about it.It was an impressive arrangement, this procession with a fat "Bacchus on the Barrel" . Everyone in the procession had a certain role and was dressed out for this. The rest of the people were busy in treating them with food and drink, when they went from farm to farm to collect money for the great Fastelavn's feast, the great finish of the day. A description of a day like this tells us that they visited 32 farms and then held this great feast, where they danced until sunrise.

In front of the Bacchus- procession was the leader in his officer's uniform with a sabre. After him came the Master of Ceremonies. After them two standard bearers dressed in white tie and tails. Then followed the musicians, the singers and the carriers with garderhuer (like the Queen's Guards), they wore white shirts, decorated with red and blue revenue labels. The carriers had a ladder upon which sat Bacchus, all dressed in white and stuffed with hay to make him look real fat. He sat upon a small barrel with water and splashed water on people, if they came too close.

After this all the other figures came, and all with certain roles to play. "The Summer" was a man dressed in summer-dress and with sun-glasses. When the procession came indoors, he at once opened all the windows, claiming that it was too hot. But "the Winter", who was dressed in fur coat and wooden-soled boots, closed the windows again very quickly and went to sit in the chimney corner because he froze. In the meantime the wheat farmer with his meerschaum-pipe and a long coat with silver buttons bargained about the harvest of the year, and he smoke so much that he was almost covered in tobacco-smoke. The clowns removed all kinds of domestic utensils and gave them back - in return for payment. There was also a knife-grinder and his madam, both in old, ragged clothes. He sang his knife-grinder-song.

When the procession came to a farm the Master of Ceremonies went inside and asked if they might come in, which he said in a special jingle. When they came into the yard, they played music and sang a Fastelavn's-song. The whole company came into the living room and was treated with food and drink, and the Master of Ceremonies thanked host and hostess in a verse. The jester with fool's cap and bell told him to ask if they might come back next year. "Yeah, yeah! mister Barrejads!" said the MC, "let's see, if we live that long". And the company sang another song.

Some of the customs like the man in officer's uniform and the standard bearers belong to rather new customs from the 1800s, but there are variations, which remind about a medieval fool's play. The jester made all kinds of tomfoolery, he hid pots and pans in the most incredible places. There was Jerusalem's shoemaker dressed as a very old man with long white hair; he went along and measured the girls' legs in order to make them high boots. He received money in advance, but they never got any boots. The knife-grinder's madam stole as a raven as soon she came inside. Two people wore a straw-doll named Ole Lukøje (Sandman) ; one of the persons was dressed as a man in top and as a woman in bottom and number two was dressed the other way round. When they came near a water-hole people tried to push the waggon with the straw-doll into the water to make him drown.

In return for the fine treating with food and drink from the people on the farms everyone was invited to the Fastelavn's-party which was held on the last farm, a total-feast, in which the whole village took part. A total-feast like this is characteristic for traditional, primitive societies. When modern times arrived it became difficult to carry through a feast with everyone taking part - so the custom died out.

The rituals in such a feast can be mysterious, but earlier sources make it possible to see dimly the outline of a heathen carnival, which survived up to the present time. The figures from "Bacchus on the Barrel" are all repetitions from the European Carnival traditions. They were all representatives of the local society, of the world around which they depended on, and of outcast-groups, which was neither this nor that. The straw-doll Ole Lukøje (Sandman) shows signs of relations to various personifications of the old year, which has to be drowned or burnt. And the wheat farmer walks around selling his wheat. A sign of spring to come.

Source: Archaeological Magazine SKALK, Nr. 1, Gustav Henningsen: Det Danske Karneval, February 2006; Lis Paludan & Ulla Dietl, Bo Bedre, Børnenes Idébog 1972.

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