4 European Shrovetide Customs We Should Borrow
Today is Shrove Tuesday, and people are celebrating with Mardi Gras parades, Carnival celebrations, and pancake dinners. Carnival customs and celebrations vary by region, and here are some from Europe that just sound like a ton of fun.
In the Rhineland region of Germany, Fasching (Carnival) includes Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival), which is the last Thursday before the beginning of Lent. It’s a day of street parties and feasting, with a twist. In many communities, women take over for the day. They can kiss any man they want, and they take a pair of scissors with them to cut off men’s ties as they see them! Men know it as a good day to wear paper ties.
The tradition supposedly arose when the washerwomen of Beuel got fed up at the men celebrating Fasching while the women were left at home to clean up after them. They created the Women’s Carnival Committee in 1824, and stormed the town hall, demanding to be included in the festivities. The symbolic storming of town halls is still part of Weiberfastnacht in many German communities.
2. Powder Day
Today is Powder Day (Dia de los Polvos) in Tolox, Spain, the culmination of the Carnival season in which people throw talcum powder at each other. Tradition has it that the custom harks back to 1539, when relations between Christians and Muslims were tense. Two young women, one Muslim and one Christian, were competing for the same guy. They worked at the same bakery, and began throwing flour at each other, which escalated into a full scale riot with Christian and Muslim workers all throwing flour. From that (possibly apocryphal) beginning, a tradition developed where men would target women of their choosing with flour as a means of flirting. On Powder Day, women would lock the doors against unwanted flouring, while men tried to get in to mark their target with flour. Over the years, this has changed into the more civilized free-for-all with everyone flinging talcum. Other communities in Spain have adopted Dia de los Polvos as well.
In Lithuania, the day before Ash Wednesday is called Užgavėnės. More than just a pre-Lenten carnival, it is celebrated as the end of winter. Winter is symbolized by an effigy of the female character called Morė or Boba, which is paraded through town and then burned. Bye bye, winter!
There is also a male version of the changing seasons, in which two effigies fight each other: Lašininis, which translates to “porker,” representing winter, and Kanapinis, representing spring. “Porker” is significant, because winter is the meat-eating season. Of course, Kanapinis wins. Plenty of other folk characters attend the festivities, whether as huge parade floats or masquerading revelers. And many pancakes are eaten.
4. The Battle of the Oranges
What could be more fun that a massive public food fight? Every year during Carnival, the people of Ivrea, Italy, re-enact a 12th-century battle in which the downtrodden townspeople overthrew their evil overlord. They do this by flinging oranges at each other! Why oranges? Because it’s better than the beans they used to use in the old days. The switch was taken from a ritual in which young men and women would toss oranges at each other as a means of flirting.
A cart full of the tyrant’s men try to fend of the assault of thousands of commoners. Revelers have to switch off as the tyrant’s men, because the job comes with a beating that no one should endure for the entire festival! After three days of throwing oranges, many are left to nurse their bruises and the streets are ankle-deep in citrus pulp. The re-enactment began Sunday and will conclude today.