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Fasnachts, the sugary fried donuts customarily prepared and eaten on Shrove Tuesday, are a Pennsylvania Dutch staple in Lebanon County. In preparation for the yearly observance of this tradition, here’s a brief glimpse into how Lebanon Countians of decades past celebrated the holiday – and ate their share of fasnachts along the way.
This year’s celebration of Shrove Tuesday falls on March 1; however, area fasnacht suppliers such as St. Cecilia’s Church may be selling the donuts ahead of Tuesday. If you have a favorite supplier of fasnachts, send us a message at the end of the article and we’ll highlight them in a post later this month.
Making the most of “Fat Tuesday”
Fasnachts, or “fastnachts,” take their name from the German term meaning “fasting night,” referring to the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. As the last day before the start of the 40-day Christian observance, Shrove Tuesday traditionally saw families use up their sweetest and fattiest ingredients in all kinds of dishes and treats. This is also where the holiday gets its other name, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday in French).
A typical fasnacht is simply dough fried in oil or deep fat with a sprinkling of sugar on the outside. Variations on this simple recipe are very common, as are serving suggestions. A column in the Lebanon Daily News (Feb. 27, 1933) advises readers to try making a “fastnacht sandwich” with butter and molasses spread in the middle, or simply dunking the pastries in coffee “to improve the doughnut, the coffee, and your own temper.”
As German immigrants settled in the Lebanon Valley in colonial times, they brought with them traditions of the old country, where “Fastnacht” still refers to the event and not the donut. The tradition began such a long time ago that, even in 1876, the Lebanon Daily News lamented that the old celebration was apparently dying out:
It was the custom, years ago, to bake on this day large quantities of fastnacht cakes, but like all the old German customs, is fast dying away, and is now principally kept by the Roman Catholic church.Lebanon Daily News, Feb. 26, 1876
While fasnachts have fortunately not gone anywhere, it remains true that Catholic churches have done much to keep the donuts coming. Probably the best-known supplier of fasnachts in Lebanon is St. Cecilia’s Church, which, according to the Lebanon Daily News, has been making the donuts for around 80 years.
Decades ago, when the church was known as St. Gertrude’s, “fasnacht sociables” were sometimes held. These events were popular in social organizations and even in household gatherings. Fasnachts, thankfully, were not the only things on the menu:
One aspect of the tradition perhaps less well-known is the teasing of the last family member to rise from bed on Shrove Tuesday. The late sleeper is, for the rest of the day, a “lazy fasnacht.”
No matter where you buy them, how you make them, or how you take them, fasnachts are a yearly tradition that has rarely been ignored. As the Lebanon Daily News declared in the 1933 column: “To have no fastnachts on Fasnacht day is akin to having no Christmas tree on Christmas and no firemen’s parade on Labor day. It just isn’t done.”
Where do you pick up fasnachts every year? Send us a message below and we’ll include it in a post later in February highlighting places to buy the donuts.
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