SweGGate Culture Trad: Lent


Highlights of the year


Fastan (Lent)

by Dr Fredrik Haeffner


Brief historical background
Since Sweden turned into an Evangelical-Lutheran country by order of the king Gustav Vasa in the early 16th century the old catholic traditions have vanished step-by-step.
Almost no one adheres to the rules of fasting before Easter today but the "loading up" before still attracts a lot of attention. In Sweden we do not enjoy the glorious "Carnival" (farewell to meat) festivities that most of the Spanish speaking world do these days. The early tradition to perform comic theatre plays, cavilling the rulers, died already about 1600 with the "reformation" = change from Catholic to Lutheran faith.
Some notes on names and terms
Lent (the fasting period) is the 40 days preceding the Easter and, since Easter week starts on a Monday, the fast starts on a Wednesday, called
Askonsdag (Ash Wednesday). Ask is derived from aska (ashes) reflecting the catholic tradition to sprinkle wood ashes in your hair (or paint a cross on the forehead) as a sign of repent (the essence of the fast).
Fastlag is derived from the German word Fastelabend (middle German vastelavent) which literally means "the evening before the fast" (abend and avent = "evening"). In old times the preceding Sunday and Monday were included in the "load up" period (the fasting period is almost 6 weeks long so lots of nutritious food was needed).
In later times the term fastlag is widely used for the fasting period. Strictly speaking this is not correct since the period is called
fastan = the fast = Lent. The level of fasting (when it was observed) was to abstain from eating meat so in modern colloquial it would probably be "the green weeks".
The three days of  FASTLAGEN
have been given several names associated with the, sometimes very excessive, eating:
  1. Fläsksöndag (pork Sunday - and it was very fatty pork)
  2. Bullamåndag (bun Monday)
  3. Pannkaketisdag (pancake Tuesday) or Stenkaketisdag ("stone cake" Tuesday)
    Lately mostly Fettisdagen - see below.
Fettisdag = Vita tisdagen
The last day before fastan is named fettisdag ("fat Tuesday") for obvious reasons considering the diet of the day and this is the traditional first day you can eat the fastlagsbulle. In Swedish tradition it has been permitted to deviate from the fast on every Tuesday of the six weeks so every Tuesday was a day for the special fastlagsbulle.
The alternative name vita tisdag has its own explanation. On this day a lighter fast was practiced in preparation of the real fasting period. Only "white" foods were allowed. As a consequence the bread had to be baked from wheat flour (which was expensive and used only for special occasions) - hence the fastlagsbulle
In some areas the traditional food on fettisdagen was (is) boiled brown beans and pork - one of the very old dishes in the Swedish food traditions husmanskost (every-day-food)
The special treat FASTLAGSBULLE
This treat has several names. An old Swedish proverb goes "kärt barn har många namn" = a dear child is given many names.
, where "bulle" means a bun and "fastlag" is the name of this period as mentioned above.
Fettisdagsbulle is another variation combining "Fettisdag" and "bulle".
Semla is probably the most common name used in later years. It is derived from Latin word "simila" = wheat flour.
Hetvägg is the oldest name, from middle German "hete weggen" = hot wedges or "heisse wecken" = hot buns. The first known mention of this name is in a wedding poem to Herr Sven Larsson Silfverberg and Jungfru Beata Elisabeth Ruuth on 12 Feb 1689: "I basa Hetwägg nu wid Slutet aff den Dagen..."
This reflects the original way to enjoy this delicacy namely in a soup plate with much hot milk and cinnamon. (yummy).
This may however be quite hazardous and as a physician I must give proper warning. It is said that the King Adolf Fredrik (1710 - 71, ruling 1751 -71) died in terrible stomach pains after having too many "hetvägg". He died from "severe colic", probably a bowel obstruction. To be honest he had ingested quite a lot of other, very fatty, food too (surkål, kött med rofvor, hummer, kaviar, böckling och champagnevin = sour cabbage, meat with rutabagas, lobster, caviar, smoked herring and champagne) and the "hetvägg" were only for dessert.
How it was and is made
This bun is always made from wheat flour (cf the name Semla and the name of the day Vita tisdag.). The name semla was originally used for any wheat bun or bread.
Originally a hole was made in the top of the bun, the inside was carved out with a spoon, heated with fat cream and butter and then put back. The bun was then sprinkled with with sugar and cinnamon and eaten in the fashion of
hetvägg, i.e. with hot milk.
In Germany the bun was
From around the mid 1800 the treatment of the interior was replaced by stuffing it with almond paste instead. Almonds were a new import and fitting as a special treat. The cream is then used whipped as a decoration.
The top is cut open and some of the inside is removed to make room for some almond paste. The rim is decorated with sweetened whipped cream and the cut lid is replaced and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Today it is always in the form of a round or ball-shaped bun. Originally a few other shapes have been used.
The shape of a Christian cross or a thunderbolt shape (zigzag) is seen as early as in the 13th century until mid 1800 in some church paintings.

Special use of the fastlagsbulle
This bun was used for several purposes.
Courting. Since it was special and expensive young boys would give such a bun to the girl he fancied. If she was interested in him she would respond by giving him eggs at Easter, six weeks later.
Play. The game of "
basa hetvägg" described below.
is today only a nice decoration of some twigs, usually from birch, in a vase, decorated with multi-coloured hen feathers. It has become a symbol of the growing life soon to come with the advent of springtime. In the indoor warmth they turn very beautiful after a few weeks.
Originally this was a fasces (from Latin = bunch) used to whip each other with as part of the punishment for sins.
In the wedding poem
above it says "basa Hetwägg" where "basa" means to whip (also used in the word "avbasning" meaning a scolding). The worldly practice was to get up very early and gently awakening someone with a whip. The person could then buy him/herself free from further whipping by offering a hetvägg
This bunch of twigs is kept into Easter, or replaced with new ones, and additional decorations are put in, like colourful, painted eggshells but with a different traditional background - see the
Easter section.
Summing up
In modern Sweden the only remnant of the "before fasting" festivities is a wheat bun, admittedly quite "dressed up" for the occasion, but what is that compared to dancing and having fun for days on end ??
Only a few people in Skåne province long maintained a tradition called "slå katten ur tunnan", originally a rather barbaric custom where a cat was placed in a barrel strung in ropes over a road. The young boys then rode a horse past trying to crack the barrel with a wooden stick so the cat fell out. Nowadays - thank heaven - there is no cat in the barrel.
One could argue, with some relevance, that if we don't fast and repent then we don't deserve more celebration than this special "hetvägg" bun one or a few days a year.

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Last updated by F Hae 2005-07-20 22:55 © Fredrik Haeffner, 2001-4