Tuesday, February 20, 2007

'Fastnacht' Day and Mardi Gras

As the Asian Lunar New Year continues in its first week, Christians celebrate the last day of Shrovetide before Lent. In French New Orleans, it is known affectionately as 'Mardi Gras' or 'Fat Tuesday'. In Pennsylvania German households, it is known as 'Fastnacht Day'. 'Fastnacht' is German for 'Fast Night', a reference to Shrove Tuesday, the eve of the Lenten Fast. It has become the name for the traditional potato yeast doughnuts that are fried and eaten on this day, however. Some people declare that Fastnachts were not intended to have holes in the centre like traditional doughnuts but people make them both ways. In fact, one of the great cottage industries of Pennsylvania is the 'Fastnacht' industry, wherein church and other community groups make and sell Fastnacht doughnuts once a year.

One of the reasons doughnuts became a symbol of Shrove Tuesday in German-American households was a prohibition against using cooking oils during Lent. Shrove Tuesday thus would be the last day on which foods would be fried until Easter.

For those who crave a little fried delight, here is a traditional recipe for Fastnacht doughnuts:

1 cup milk
1 cup mashed potatoes
2/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 packet dried yeast
1/4 cup warm water
6 cups flour

Mix mashed potatoes, sugar, salt and butter in a large bowl, adding eggs until well mixed. Boil milk then let it cool. Meanwhile, dissolve yeast in warm water and add it to the batter. Add the milk slowly to the batter, mixing thoroughly until the dough has an elastic quality. Cover the dough and let it rise for 45 minutes or until it doubles in size.

Work with the dough until it meets with your satisfaction (no bubbles and so on), then roll it out and either cut squares or round shapes, then fry in fat. Traditionally, German households probably used lard, but most people use vegetable fat now.

In the past, the fastnachts were served with honey. Most people now serve them with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Fastnacht Day is a rather obscure tradition, but Mardi Gras is better known.

Mardi Gras is a French Carnival tradition for Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent. Probably the Carnivals originally were celebrated as a festival at the end of Winter, to induce the sun to return to Northern lands.

In New Orleans, parades and rather extravagant celebrations are famed throughout the world. 'Floats' are organised by private clubs called 'krewes' and colourful necklaces of beads as well as 'doubloons' in the form of counterfeit coins are thrown to people on the street. So famous has this tradition become that any visitor to the French Quarter at any time of the year probably will be given strings of coloured beads, even if it is not Mardi Gras at all.

After the devastation of hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been much less extravagant but people hope that the traditions will endure and regain their universal appeal.

Another custom of Mardi Gras is the 'King Cake'. This is a braided cake in the form of a circle with a hole in the centre. Covered with multi-coloured frosting and glittering sugar, it is rather like the Twelfth Night cake, as a 'baby' is hidden inside it. Whoever finds the 'baby' becomes the King of Mardi Gras, rather like the Epiphany 'King of the Bean'. The babies are made of plastic now but originally were made of sugar.

In Northern Europe, Shrovetide ends with 'Pancake Day' on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In one province in Canada, charms are inserted in the pancakes, rather like the silver charms placed in Christmas puddings in England at Christmas. The charms are symbols of different fortunes such as wealth, marriage and good fortune.
(Charms include a thimble, a coin, a horseshoe, a wishbone, a wedding bell and a Bachelor's Button.)

The forty days of Lent originally were derived from the ancient mourning period for Osiris or Adonis. After this mourning period, the god would rise or return from the Underworld. In Christianity, the 40 days of Lent commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent alone in the desert before he commenced his ordeal. Lent ends with Holy Week and it is on Good Friday that Christ was crucified. On Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead, emerging from the cave in which his body had been placed. This mirrors the ancient belief in a cave as the entrance to the Underworld.

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