Ash Wednesday this week brought to mind a long-forgotten tradition of our Luxembourg ancestors who settled at St. Donatus, Iowa in the 1850s and then in Adams County, Nebraska in the 1880s.
Pre-Lenten carnival (“Karneval” in Luxembourg) is a Catholic tradition and is found almost exclusively in Catholic countries. We are all familiar with Mardi-Gras, the French pre-Lenten celebration at New Orleans, Louisiana. However, Luxembourg also has a tradition of pre-Lenten Karneval celebration, known to our ancestors as Feusend.
In our grandparent’s time the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and abstinence was strictly observed. People refrained from drinking alcohol or eating meat, milk products and eggs. Of course all sweets were forbidden during Lent. No parties could be held and no weddings solemnized during Lent. The English word “fast” (to refrain from eating) is related to German fasten. Another word for the pre-Lenten season is Fasching which dates back to the 13th century. In modern German: Fastenschank is the last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent.
Since the Middle Ages, in the small villages of Luxembourg, young men have dressed in costumes during the week before Ash Wednesday and gone from house to house collecting eggs, fat and flour that was then used by the women to make pancakes (Paangecher), waffles (Eisekuchen, Wafelen), fried dough balls (Nonnebréidercher, Fuesbréidercher) and fried pastry knots (Verwurrelter). The pancakes were eaten on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), also known as “pancake day.”
In some Luxembourg villages, the end of the Karneval period each year was marked by the burning of “Stréimännchen” (straw man) late on Shrove Tuesday. This tradition dates back to pre-Christian times and symbolized the end of winter. The Christian religion adopted customs it could not suppress and changed the meaning. The modern meaning of the straw man burning is a symbolic burning of the sins committed during Karneval.
During the 1970s and 1980s I interviewed many of my older relatives asking them about the lives and customs of my ancestors. In January 1982 I interview, my great-aunt, Elizabeth Kaiser Pittz, youngest sister of my Grandmother, Catherine Kaiser Trausch. Elizabeth was born in 1900. Following is what she told me about the Luxembourgers pre-Lenten parties in Adams County.
“Before Lent they went masquerading. Like they do now for Halloween. People would give them money and then they would go celebrate somewhere. Get a keg of beer with the money and have a party for the families of those that went masquerading. If the house was big enough they would have a dance. We went to several of them. Just the Luxembourgers, the Theisens, Konens, and Mousels, and some Germans around did that. They would go to all the houses. They called it “Fuesends Boken.” [sic] We didn’t know who they were when they come; we tried to guess. George and John [Kaiser] used to go masquerading. Some girls went too, but mostly boys.
When they came to the door, they said they wanted a treat. They would come in and pull jokes around the house. We’d give them a treat and then they would go. When I was around 18 or 19 years old they still went, then we got together and had the parties, just before Ash Wednesday. There wasn’t any certain day; for a couple weeks before Ash Wednesday you could expect them (at the door) any time. They wore regular masks and old suits and ladies dresses. Some people wouldn’t let them in, but we always did; we kids always looked forward to that. Then in later years you couldn’t trust to let people in any more and it all fell apart.”
Next year when you read about Mardi-Gras, remember that our ancestors once held similar parties in Adams County.