By: Matt Ensminger
Winter has evolved to mean different things over time. In the past it was a scary period for most people because it was associated with death. Between the cold and sicknesses, desperate carnivores looking for an easy meal, winter was not a time to look forward to for ancient humans. To combat this fear, we created mythologies to ease our minds and give us a sense of control during this unpredictable season. The Kurent represents one of these myths of a benevolent demon that scares away the winter and all the death that comes with it by bringing the coming of spring through a time of rebirth and new life. Kurentovanje is a celebration of that transition from winter into spring through a celebration of life over death.
Nowadays, wintertime takes on a very happy and almost mystical feel. It is also a time of mass consumerism since the main holiday celebrated in the winter is Christmas. However, in the past, the coming of cold weather and shorter days had a much different feel. Many traditional winter festivals more closely resembled Halloween rather than Christmas, with people dressing up in monstrous costumes in order to scare away the associated cold and death that came with winter. One of these ‘darker’ festivals is Kurentovanje.
This Slovenian festival in Ptuj spans 11 days in February, leading up to the Lenten season. Popularized in 1960 by cultural historian Drago Hasl, it meshes pre-Christian pagan rituals with current Christian holidays. The festival has since spread to other places around the world with a big Slovenian presence. Cleveland, Ohio (USA) for example hosts a huge Kurentovanje festival in February. The reason for this festival is to hope for the end of winter and urge the coming of spring. This manifests itself with the Kurent, a monster that resembles a sheep that walks on two legs. The Kurent is said to have the power to scare away winter and usher in the beginning of spring. People in the town dress up as this monster and parade down the street. The costumes are made of sheepskin and they wear masks made of leather that have trunk-like noses and long red tongues. They also wear cowbells around their waists to further scare the winter away. The origins of this festival are obscure, but it is believed that this tradition stems from early Slavic, Celtic or Illyrian cultures. In fact, it shares many similarities with the German tradition of Krampus, which indicates a similar origin.
As with any festival, food and drinks are a must. Some of the popular beverages enjoyed during the festival include homemade schnapps as well as mulled wine. If you attend this festival, you’ll most likely see people eating krofe, a doughnut covered in powdered sugar and sometimes filled with various jellies. Doughnuts like these are eaten on Fat Tuesday and before lent across Eastern Europe in Slavic cultures. This is because in the Christian faith where sweets and fatty foods are generally cut out of the diet during lent. Therefore, this festival functions as the last time people who observe lent can have sweets for 40 days. In Polish traditions, on Fat Tuesday (the day before lent) Pączki are made and eaten, which are the same as krofe in all but name. Eating krofe during Kurentovanje fits in with the overall reason for the festival, as they represent good luck. Since the Kurent bring on the early coming of spring, the the krofe are thought to help with that.
Winter has since evolved to become more about spending time with family and celebrating the end of the year. It is a time that some people look forward to because we do not have to worry about freezing or starving. But it is good to see that some of the old traditions persist today and were not lost in time or completely engulfed in the dominant culture.
About the author: Matt Ensminger is a writer and the owner of the food blog site The Cultural Chef. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Anthropology from Loyola University of Chicago (2018), as well as a degree in Culinary Arts from Kendall Collage (2020). Matt currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. You can access his blog, The Cultural Chef, on WordPress, Instagram and Facebook.