Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Valley Traditions Part II: Festivals & Faschnachts


Harkening back to our Christmas blog on Belsnickling in the Valley we continue to explore the origins of local customs associated with the darkest days of the year. With the approach of spring the last of the three traditional winter celebrations is upon us - the period before Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent. As with All Souls Day and Christmas the religious observance is preceded by “eves” of gaiety and eating. In some cultures frivolities may last a week, but most frequently they are observed on the two days before the beginning of Lent - Rose Monday and Shrove Tuesday. The name used for the Tuesday depends on whether one is in Latin Europe or in Teutonic Europe. In the southern European tradition, celebrations last for several days and are called carnival (derived from carne levare, which is translated as ‘taking away the flesh”). In the English language, shrove (the past tense of shrive) means to hear confession. So, prior to the salvation of body and soul, society dedicated a time to indulge in food, masquerade, and parades.

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. Early Christian leaders grafted “carnival” onto the ancient Roman circus-like festival of Lupercalia. Today well-known carnivals are held in Venice, the Rhineland of Germany, Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad and Tobago, and, of course, in French-speaking America, especially in New Orleans. Over the centuries many of these celebrations have taken on a bacchanalian character. The French explorer, Iberville, brought the custom to lower Mississippi River delta in 1699. There the celebration rituals changed over the centuries, and today, organizations called Krewes prescribe the traditions and activities such as parades with elaborate floats, honored guests to be Rex King, and sometimes masked balls. The traditional souvenir is the green, yellow, and purple beads.

Shrove Tuesday: Pączki Day, Bolludagur Day, Pancake Day, Faschnacht Day

These days are celebrated in Poland, Iceland, England, Germany, and in their ethnic communities in America. They describe how housewives use up their supplies of butter, eggs, and sugar before Lent. In Poland and among the Polish immigrants in America, the pączki (pronounced punch-key) - a fried doughnut filled with jam or cream and glazed – is eaten to use-up the ingredients. A similarly made bun by Icelanders is eaten on Bolludagur Day.

In Olney England, a pancake race held on Shrove Tuesday dates from 1445. Legend maintains that when a housewife cooking pancakes heard the church bells summoning her to confession, she ran to church wearing her apron and still holding her frying pan. A Pancake Day race held here and many places around the world require the participants to wear a dress and apron. During the race a contestant is required to flip a pancake three times in the frying pan. A pancake flipped off the pan disqualifies the participant and brings bad luck. Another legend from the early nineteenth century has it that “Napoleon, who liked to make and eat pancakes with Josephine, blamed the failure of his Russian campaign on the one he had dropped years before at Malmaison during Candlemas.”

In the Germanic tradition, Faschnacht (there are many spellings) Day translates as the day before fasting. This tradition was practiced in southeastern Pennsylvania and in the Shenandoah Valley. Though “few if any Valley Germans observed fasting on Ash Wednesday,” fried cakes or sometimes raised baked doughnuts were customarily served on Shrove Tuesday. In the flax growing areas of the Valley, folklore avowed that the height of one’s buckwheat cake stack predicted the height of the flax crop. Another belief was that if you did not have doughnuts on Shrove Tuesday one could not raise flax for the year. This writer who was raised in the faschnacht tradition remembers when great-grandmother in her farmhouse kitchen in Berks County, Pa. made faschnachts early Shrove Tuesday morning and mailed a box of them to us in Allentown, Pa. The package arrived still smelling tantalizing fresh in mid-afternoon. One had to wait (impatiently) until dinner to eat them with sausage and applesauce.

Ash Wednesday is February 22, 2012, so enjoy your pancakes before then.

Elmer Lewis Smith, et .al. The Pennsylvania Germans of the Shenandoah Valley. 107-8.

No comments:

Post a Comment