In most places, the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Christian season of Lent, might be referred to as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival Day or just plain Tuesday.
In Lancaster County, and other Pennsylvania communities with German heritage, however, it's best known as Fasnacht (or Fastnacht, Fosnot, Fosnaught) Day. On this day, special doughnuts — made with potato flour and fried in oil — are consumed by just about everyone.
The name fasnacht may be spelled a variety of ways, but regardless of how you spell it, the Pennsylvania Dutch honor a fasnacht tradition that dates back generations to 16th-century Germany by enjoying the doughnut treats before strict fasting during the six weeks of Lent.
Today, the day is observed by those of German and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage along with their neighbors. Each year, thousands of fasnachts are made by bakeries, churches and in farm kitchens on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
The Bird-In-Hand Bakery, east of Lancaster City, has been making fasnachts for years, said bakery manager Mike Vergara. Vergara, worked with a small team of bakery workers in the overnight hours on Feb. 15, preparing upwards of 50,000 of the fried treats to be sold and consumed the days prior to Ash Wednesday.
For many years, making and selling fasnachts also was a popular fundraiser for local churches but, unfortunately, with COVID-19 restrictions in 2021, it has been put on hold until 2022.
The story behind fasnachts is an old one. Lenten guidelines for Christians always included fasting and abstaining from rich foods, and early German Christians were being practical by using these doughnuts as a way to use up the lard, sugar, fat and butter that were forbidden during Lent. The name fasnacht is German for "fast night" and was attached to the doughnut treat.
Fasnachts are a yeast-raised potato pastry that is deep fried like a doughnut.
Today, there are three types of fasnachts: ones made with yeast, ones made with baking powder, and ones made with potatoes and yeast. All are slightly crispy on the outside and not as sweet as standard doughnuts.
The traditional method of eating a fasnacht is to slice the doughnut lengthwise, spread one side with butter, and top it with a thick syrup (King syrup has always been popular) and then sandwich it together before eating. Because these Lenten doughnuts don't have holes like many typical doughnuts, the syrup usually stays inside.
Today, it's also common to enjoy fasnachts coated in powdered or granulated sugar or even glazed.
A Fasnacht Connoisseur
Andy Fasnacht is a lifelong Lancaster County resident and long-time editor of the Lancaster County Weekly newspapers in Ephrata, Lititz and Elizabethtown.
Fasnacht is the seventh generation of his family that arrived in Philadelphia in 1750 and settled in the Ephrata area.
The Fasnacht's family connection to the fasnacht doughnut goes beyond the name. Fasnacht said it dates back to his grandfather Robert Fasnacht in the mid-20th century, who started the tradition of putting out doughnuts for customers and friends at his South Church Street Insurance office.
"I remember, when I was young, seeing boxes and boxes of doughnuts with a large can of King's syrup and a big coffee urn in the office lobby," Fasnacht said. "Anyone in town was invited to stop in for a treat, but my grandfather also delivered them personally to other businesses and institutions."
Fasnacht said the tradition continued and grew when his grandfather was elected Treasurer of Lancaster County in mid-1970s, and continued until he passed away in 1982. Fasnacht’s dad carried on the insurance business and the fasnacht doughnut tradition and editor Fasnacht brought it with him to The Ephrata Review when he started working with the newspaper in 1986.
When his dad passed away in 1993, he said "I took over the tradition and really tried to ramp things up taking dozens of the doughnuts to the newspaper offices, doctor's office, bank, drug store and other businesses and continued it through 2020 when offices were still open before the COVID-19 closures and people started working from home — including our newspaper staff."
“My grandfather felt strongly about using the most traditional form of the pastry — plain with no powder, sugar or glaze — but then poking a hole in the side to be filled with the King syrup,” Fasnacht said. “The most memorable downside of this for me was one year when I was taking the leftovers back to my office and didn't realize the syrup bottle came open, leaving a trail of the sticky stuff all the way down the hall."
In recent years, he said, "I did start including a few powdered doughnuts with my order each year for those who didn't want to deal with the sticky syrup."
So, on this 2021 Fasnacht Day, treat yourself to one — or more — of these pre-Lenten treats. Happy Fasnacht Day!