Costumes on Ash Wednesday

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Costumes on Ash Wednesday

Photo: Golli

Q: Interesting custom having Trick and Treat during the Christian first day of Lent - first day of a period (46 days) of fasting, moderation, and self-denial until Easter Sunday. Can anyone explain how this custom began?


A: Hi Susan,

Unlike Halloween, the costumed celebrations of kids in Iceland don‘t have pagan roots but decidedly Christian ones. Ash Wednesday is mentioned in Icelandic manuscripts from the 14th century, as a solemn day of repentance, the first day of Lent. The European tradition of big carnival festivals has spread all over the world but never really got popular in Iceland, probably because the weather around Easter isn‘t suited for outdoor celebrations. We don‘t have the large carnivals of Venice or Rio, but traditionally, Icelanders still celebrated, albeit in a more muted fashion, partaking in a better dinner than usual inside the home.

Once Icelanders turned Lutheran, in the 16th century, the importance of lent waned but the pre-lent celebrations survived. The tradition of celebrating Bolludagur (cream puff day), Sprengidagur (Bursting day, so called because you eat until you feel ready to burst) and Ash Wednesday.

For a while, Monday in the seventh week before Easter (later Bolludagur), was a traditional children‘s holiday, where kids would march around town in costumes and take turns „hitting the cat out of the barrel“ (a tradition similar to the piñata but with a wooden barrel). It wasn‘t known as Bolludagur until the beginning of the 20th century when the costume and candy traditions had migrated to Ash Wednesday. Bolludagur is a day where people make and eat danish-style cream puffs, made of choux pastry. To earn their cream puffs, kids make decorative rods which they beat their parents with, perhaps a remnant of the Catholic tradition of self-flagellation usually reserved for Ash Wednesday.

Most of the traditions surrounding Ash Wednesday and the days leading up to it are some mutation of Christian rituals or European traditions. One specifically Icelandic tradition is the making of ash bags. Although it‘s mostly defunct by now, ever since the mid-18th century, possibly even a century before that, people would make small bags and try to pin them to the back of unsuspecting people. Women would try to hang bags filled with ash to the back of men‘s shirts and men would do the same with bags of small pebbles. Early in the 20th century, the tradition evolved into young girls pinning their ash bags to young men they fancied to indicate their interest. The tradition survived long into the 20th century but the gender distinction disappeared. One theory is that the custom died out when pin production changed so they didn‘t bend as easily.