Donuts, Ashes and Fasting

Fastnacht Social tradition dates back to the 1800s

As the beginning of Lent approaches, New Covenant United Church of Christ prepares to celebrate on the eve of Ash Wednesday by holding a Fastnacht Social, a tradition that dates back to the 1800ás.

The season of Lent, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday and lasts 40 days, is often associated with self-denial or periods of fasting. The week leading up to the Lenten season is usually marked with celebrations such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Brazil, but in areas with a strong German heritage, the practice of making fastnachts, or square-shaped doughnuts, is a way of feasting before the time of fasting.

In his presentation on the tradition of Fastnachts at a recent Ecumenical luncheon, Bill Smith, a member of New Covenantás congregation, said that most people think of doughnuts as “tube-shaped round pastries with a hold in the middle.”

“Never did I think in my life that doughnuts were square or rectangular, but they are. Just like people doughnuts are different and that’s good,” he said.

“But during Lent they take on a rather unique shape and taste, making them stand out from all other doughnuts,ã he said of the fastnacht’s unusual shape which in some ways resembles a little sugar-coated pillow. Sometimes they are called “fat cakes.”

Smith shared the original German recipe which contained, among other things, lard, sugar, fat and butter.

“When carefully mixed, the dough is raised, and then rolled out and cut into squares,” he said, adding that the squares are then allowed to rise until they are double in size before they are deep fried.

After frying they are placed on paper towels to cool and then, if desired, they can be placed into a paper bag and shaken in granulated or powdered sugar. Cinnamon if often added for flavoring, Smith told the group.

“Traditionally, fastnachts are sold on Shrove Tuesday at bakeries, supermarkets and at churches,” he added.

At New Covenant an event known as the Fastnacht Social has been held for over 200 years. It consisted of a program of music, song, skis, laughter and fun, according to archival records, Smith said.

The tradition of fastnachts is rooted in Germany. Smith shared how in southern German, Switzerland, Alsace and Austria the term fastnacht is synonymous with the Carnival season. The first part of the word is actually the shortened versions of the word, “fasten” which is German for to fast and “nacht” which means night, a reference to the night before Lent begins.

The immigration of German settlers to the Williamsport area in the 1800’s brought brought the tradition here. Smith noted that in 1817 Emmanuel Church of the German Evangelical and Lutheran Church as established in 1817. It was also the second largest congregation in the area.

In 1853, members of the congregation who wanted to hold services in English left the Emmanuel Church and formed St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Market Street. In 1863, the members who wanted German speaking services left Emmanuel Church and formed Immanuel German Lutheran Church, which was dedicated in 1884 at the current site of New Covenant United Church of Christ on East Third Street.