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Fettis Day frogs and other funny pranks - the customs of the ancient world around Lent

Fat Day Cubes
Early 1900s: greedy day old men from Alfta parish, Voxnadalen, Hälsingland. The masks were reportedly called "skråm öger" in Alfta. Photo: Nordic Museum

The tradition of dressing up as Fete's Day goblins and goblins is a very old tradition that still lives today among the commoners in Alfta in Hälsingland, but today it's the younger children who dress up - and perhaps not in quite as frightening a costume as in the past.

Fatty Day has also been called Pork Fatty Day, Butter Fatty Day and the like, and it is the last day on which the pleasures of the table are permitted before the Catholic Easter fast begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday. Seven meals are eaten on this day in some parts of the country, and in Norway the day is also known as "sjumålsdagen".

What about the fatties? Well, on this particular day, when the tables were full, the custom was that no visitor was to be denied a treat. That's why it was traditional to dress up on Fat Tuesday and go around to the farms in the locality, where they had a bite to eat and acted as travelling entertainers. But it wasn't just about getting a bite to eat, Fatty's Day was also a day to simply get together and have fun. All over the country, games were played and festive pranks were pulled, not unlike the Christmas season.

In Skåne there were various equestrian games where both horses and riders were beautifully adorned with "lashings" and the riders had flowers or lashings of rice in their hats. Unfortunately, there are also many examples from the history of the common people of the intolerance of the Swedish authorities for these simple folk customs - customs that often contain some superstition and sometimes also drunkenness.

Let the cat out of the bag
To "beat the cat out of the barrel", a well-known game of tag. Herring skin clipping by E. Ljung in Runa. Printed in "Minnesblad från NM 1888" Image: the Nordic Museum (CC BY-NC-ND)

Often this went so far that the state or the state church forbade the common people around the country to practice their old local culture through their traditions - a cultural destruction that must never be forgotten. One account from Skåne in 1723 tells of how the authorities in Skytts härad imposed a ban on just such a game of horseback riding, called "vädjolopp". Anyone who broke the ban and still practised the game during Lent within the county was fined 40 marks in silver coins.

Elsewhere in the country, games were held that can be linked to an even older magical belief among the Nordic peasantry about vegetation and the peasants' desire for a good harvest. In the countryside of central eastern Sweden and in Norrland, people played "go long flax" or "big turnips and long flax" on the evening of Fat Tuesday. This is how the game is described in the book Parties of the year (1953) by Albert Eskeröd.

The game involved some half-grown boys and girls gathering at dusk on a Fat Tuesday evening with both larger sleds and smaller sleds. They sought out the steepest slopes they could find, because the skiing was supposed to be sumptuous and adventurous. The sledges were tied together in pairs or in long rows, and with shouts and cheers they set off down the slopes. Often the village's talented musicians would turn up on the spot, and the sledges would sometimes be wearing sashes. During the descent they would shout, "Get out of the way! Long flax and big turnips!".

In Länna, Uppland, one cried out:

Long flax in our fields,
shit and dung on grannas

In Ösmo, Sörmland, people cried out:

Big turnips and long flax
and fine nupas and greasy blues
and only the shit will get the neighbors!

In Leksand, Dalarna, it sounded instead:

Long flax, long flax
long as empties,
and tough as sinew
and white as snow.
Father this year and mother last year,
silk mask with bumpy hair.
Mala, mala, thank you.
Hooray, hooray!

It was, of course, with a twinkle in the eye that you wished your neighbour bad luck. On the contrary, the fact that the entire village, young and old, gathered in this way many times each year for various traditional games showed a very strong cohesion and sense of community.

In Tåsjö parish in Ångermanland, people competed in skiing on Fettis Day to see who would have the longest hemp. This detail reveals that we are dealing with old Finnish villages. The custom was quite common in Finland, and the Finns in Tåsjö did not grow flax but hemp.

I'm skipping Lent this year, but seven meals - well, I can imagine that today.

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One thought on “Fettisdagsgubbar och andra roliga upptåg – allmogens seder kring fastan

  1. Cajsa G says:

    Very enlightening! Let the cat out of the bag, bizarre. And also the Freddie Kreuger masks! Fat day was definitely a bigger deal back in the day. Now it just means eating semolina and it's been done for a few weeks already.

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