Fasnacht Day

It’s Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras ‘Fat Tuesday”, or (as it’s known in my Pennsylvania Dutch homeland) Fasnacht Day. Time for pre-Lenten excesses, like the rites of Carnival, pancakes, and doughnuts (the Shrove Tuesday food of my people).

From the Wikipedia entry today:

A Fasnacht, sometimes spelled Fastnacht or Faschnacht, is a fatty doughnut treat served traditionally on Fastnacht Day (Shrove Tuesday), the day before Lent starts. Fasnachts were made as a way to empty the pantry of lard, sugar, fat, and butter, which were traditionally fasted from during Lent.

Basel, Switzerland conducts an annual fasnacht festival. The Pennsylvania Deutsch territory surrounding Lancaster, Pennsylvania, celebrates the custom as well. Most chain supermarkets in the eastern Pennsylvania offer fasnachts, although WalMart offers Pączki instead. The pączki is traditionally eaten in Poland on the Thursday prior to Fasnacht Day, although in Polish communities of the US, the tradition is more commonly celebrated on Fasnacht Day. Commonly pączki are round, rather than having straight sides, and they are filled with jelly, or sometimes creme filling.

In parts of Maryland, the treats are called Kinklings, and are only sold in bakeries on Shrove Tuesday. The German version is made from a yeast dough, deep fried, and coated or dusted in sugar or cinnamon sugar; they may be plain or filled with fruit jam. Pennsylvania Dutch fasnachts can often be potato doughnuts, and may be uncoated, powdered with table sugar, or dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

The term is synonymous with the [culmination of the] Carnival season Fasnacht in southern Germany, Switzerland, Alsace and Austria. Although usually written “Fastnacht”, there are many local spoken varieties: Fasnacht, Fassenacht, Fasnet etc.

(Popular etymology connects the first element of the word to fasten ‘to fast’, but that’s at best unsure, and a more likely connection is to Fasching, the Carnival of Bavaria and Austria.)

On the food connection, with Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday), Rachel Ray quotes this useful material from Catholic sources:

You may be wondering what the eating and fasting rules are for Lent and how things have evolved.  Regarding the history of Lent, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center,

“The rules of fasting varied. First, some areas of the Church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.”

Second, the general rule was for a person to have one meal a day, in the evening or at 3 p.m.

These Lenten fasting rules also evolved. Eventually, a smaller repast was allowed during the day to keep up one’s strength from manual labor. Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Friday. Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed totally. (However, the abstinence from even dairy products led to the practice of blessing Easter eggs and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.)

The present fasting and abstinence laws are very simple: On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (having only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one’s strength) and abstain from meat; on the other Fridays of Lent, the faithful abstain from meat. People are still encouraged “to give up something” for Lent as a sacrifice. (An interesting note is that technically on Sundays and solemnities like St. Josephs Day (March 19) and the Annunciation (March 25), one is exempt and can partake of whatever has been offered up for Lent.”

In my childhood, the churchly, including many Lutherans and “plain” church people as well as Roman Catholics, went through Lent meatless (substituting fish, eggs, cheese, and so on) — which meant that the gorging on egg- and butter-based foods on Fasnacht Day was simply puzzling to me.

7 Responses to “Fasnacht Day”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I guess the theory was either “last chance for a long time, make the most of it!” or “this stuff won’t keep; use it up.”

  2. ShadowFox Says:

    Take a closer look at “pączki” entry in Wiki. It points to several associated traditions, including, obviously, Poland and Polish-heavy areas in the US, including Chicago and Detroit suburbs. Evanston, IL, and Hamtramck, MI, are, in some ways, the epicenters of the Pączki Day in the US–both have pączki-eating contests and a parade. What’s Pączki Day? It’s Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. Also note that unlike Poland, where pączki are eaten on “Fat Thursday” and other parts of the US, where Pączki day is Fat Tuesday, Chicago celebrates both the Tuesday and the Thursday. And since the pączki-eating contest is usually held over the weekend (Saturday), that makes nearly a week of associated festivities.

    But back to language. Pączki is plural. Pączek is singular. Compare that to Russian “ponchiki” and “ponchik”, respectively. Of course, there is a nasal quality in the Polish word, but the Anglicised version is either pronounced as “punch-ky”–in Chicago–or “patchky”–in Boston. (I’ve even heard “piatchky”.) In addition “pączki” is often considered singular, with plural given as “pączkis”–that almost makes it sound like Yiddish rather than Polish.

    To top it off, Polish Jews adopted their own version of pączki, which I would normally have assumed to be a big no-no–or so my Orthodox rabbis used to tell me (if something is used as symbolic in some Christian tradition, it cannot be used by Jews). Still, they moved the donuts from spring to early winter and changed the name to sufganyot after they brought the treats with them to Israel. So if you see sufganyot in kosher stores around Hannukah, think “pączki”.

    Disclaimer: I made a small contribution to the Wiki article on pączki. I thought I should make it clear here.

  3. blackwatertown Says:

    I’ve just come from the Basel Fasnacht – some pics here http://wp.me/Djed – they celebrate it once lent has already begun.

  4. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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