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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Ancient Shrove-Tide Customs, with Special Reference to Roman Germania



The customs prevailing in the Germanic countries around Shrove-tide are remnants of ancient spring festivals, the long period of feasting having been, according to the author, divided by the Christian Church into two sections by inserting in the midst of the heathen celebrations the period of Lent, with its fasting and meditation; while the spring festival of Easter was used for the purposes of the Church as a celebration of the Resurrection, and the Roman carnival found ready adoption prior to Lent.

The feasts of our rude ancestors were probably held on what the Anglo-Saxons called the Dhing-stead; the Germans, Malstätte. To this meeting-place the individuals brought contributions of food and drink. In most cases this custom survives in the usage of children of marching around through the villages, singing begging-songs and collecting eatables with which to have a feast at the village inn. Many of these begging songs are quoted by the author in the dialects of different regions.

Curious instruments are used by the children in making a noise and attracting attention, as the Rommelspott, a pot over which an animal skin has been stretched. By rubbing with a stick, a peculiar low growl is produced. Often, too, full-grown young men perform the office of the children, and, in the Eiffel, the poor of the community take advantage of the custom and gather in unusually liberal gifts. The name Zimbert, which occurs in connection with this feast in Rhenish Prussia, is traced to St. Bertha or Hertha, the goddess of spring. Some of the songs clearly preserve references to ancient spring festivals and the expulsion of winter from his domain.

There is a remarkable degree of similarity in all the songs used in widely separated regions and by people of different tribes, showing how universal these customs were in ancient times.

Another general and ancient Germanic feature of these festivals is the lighting of fires, especially on hills and mountain sides. The manner of burning, the drift of the smoke, and other incidents form material for divinations by the old women, the smoke is believed to benefit trees or houses to which it is carried by the wind, remnants of the fire-wood possess healing power. In some cases, a basket containing a live cat or a bound fox or rooster is placed on the top of three poles erected tent fashion, the fire being started under these poles. The people dance around, carrying torches, and often run through the ashes after the fire is out (cf. need-fires). Neighboring villages start their fires all at once, illuminating the heavens for many miles around. Often the merriment changes to solemn prayer. Yarn spun by the light of the holy fires by the girls possesses magic virtues. The kindling wood, straw, etc., is often collected in a similar manner as the material for the banquet. Wheels are wrapped in straw and rolled burning down the hillside. The author is of opinion that in ancient times these fires were accompanied by sacrifices, perhaps even human sacrifices, and that the cat, rooster, or fox, or in some places, a straw man or a cross called "the witch" which is placed on the poles, is a survival of those primeval rites.

Many things done during the holy eve of Shrove-Tuesday bring good luck, as pruning trees, hanging wreaths of straw on them as a protection from vermin, etc. If milk is drunk it protects from sunstroke. A peculiar belief is that if the moon shines those persons whose bodies cast no shadow will soon die. There are numerous superstitions of a similar kind.

Some villagers prepare dainty food and leave it on the window sills over night, for the spirits of their departed friends are supposed to come down during the night.

The author describes a number of games and pastimes practised in different regions and at different times, tracing them several centuries back. The costuming and manners show many an ancient heathen trait.

In conclusion, the author gave the words of a song used near Cologne in the night after Whitsunday, together with the air of this song as he caught it in his native town recently.