Fašiangy is the Slovak word for Fastnacht (German), Maslenitza (Russian) or Mardi Gras (French), all of which are the names for the season that starts after New Year’s festivities and lasts until Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.
Lent is observed by Christians as a 40-day period of fasting before Easter. It not only involves giving up meat, animal products and all fatty foods, but also alcohol, singing and dancing.
It comes as no surprise that we make the most of the Fašiangy season, when all these joyful activities are allowed and practised in excess. It’s the time of carnivals, parties, eating and drinking that typically culminates on Shrove Tuesday – the last day before Lent.
Unlike the French, Americans or British, who make pancakes to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, Slovaks prepare doughnuts to mark the end of their Fašiangy season. Slovak doughnuts are called šišky (shishki) and they are often deep-fried in pork fat, mainly in village households that raise their own pigs.
A Fašiangy carnival usually starts with a procession of masks through the village or town. They often symbolize powerful and noisy animals like bears, goats or oxes, which our ancestors believed would scare away evil spirits wandering around during the dark winter months.
Ancient folklore has it that the last few days before Shrove Tuesday were most bizarre. The world would turn ‘upside down’ with many traditional roles being reversed: the wealthy would dress as the poor, the old were disguised as the young, men wore women’s clothes and vice versa.Despite the Christian Church trying to suppress or change these old pagan traditions, they have survived and gained even more followers. Fašiangy carnivals today are meant to welcome the sun returning from the southern hemisphere, but also promote traditional specialities and drinks, which never fail to bring together local communities and visitors alike.
Ritual dances and folk games are still part of Fašiangy celebrations in some Slovak villages. Music and dancing goes on until late hours when the funeral of the double-bass is staged in a farcical play featuring a priest, a richtár (the old Slovak word for a magistrate), and a bunch of mourning carnival-goers.