One thing you quickly learn about living in Germany, is that there is no shortage of fests. People here celebrate everything. Of course you have Oktoberfest and the Christmas markets, but you also have fests for vegetables, fests for fountains, fests for saints, fests for wursts, fests for seasons, and fests for strong beer just to name a few. You have markets for Easter, markets for special Sundays when everything is magically open for the day, you have Dults and Volksfests, Italian fests, international fests, music fests, and the list just goes on. In short, somewhere almost every week, there is a fest celebrating something. While I enjoy these as much as the next person, in my opinion, none of these can compare to Fasching. My favorite German holiday that very few people have heard of.
Before I moved to Germany, I had no idea that any special pre-Lenten celebration occurred here. Like most people, I thought Brazil, Venice or New Orleans were the only places hosting parties. But lesser known events take place throughout the world, including Germany. The largest and most famous celebrations are held in Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Mainz. These, and many other Northern Fasching celebrations follow a tradition of political satire and parody. They began as a way to voice displeasure with government, rulers, and occupiers. This tradition continues today, and recently the parade made the news with a decision to cancel the Charlie Hebdo inspired float.
But that is not the Carnivale that I know. I lived in Southern Baden-Württemberg, where the Swabian-Alemmanic traditions live on in this unique celebration. Locally, the festivities were known as Fasnet. As soon as I moved to the area, new friends attempted to prepare me for the nearly weeklong celebration, but it was something I needed to experience to understand.
First encounters with Fasching
My first encounter with Fasnet was at the drycleaners. The first week we lived in our new town, we were exploring the Altstadt, when we noticed the oddest thing hanging in the window of the drycleaner’s. There, amidst the freshly pressed pants and neatly laundered dresses, hung a multi-colored suit that looked as if it were covered in rounded felt feathers. We dubbed it the crazy chicken suit, thinking nothing of it unless we happened to walk by the cleaners, where it hung every day.
The next thing we noticed was that right around mid-January, the stores began to sell Halloween costumes. Soon, the town began a transformation from barren winter wasteland to spectacularly festive looking street party. The entire Altstadt was decorated with garlands of triangular fabric strung from building to building and cascading down from the clock tower. We began to hear the unmistakable sound of whips, as young boys practiced their whip snapping prowess. Finally we received a visit from a group of men selling newspapers written in Swabish, and accepting schnapps. (I previously wrote about this encounter here.)None of that prepared us for our first Fasnet.
Fasnet begins the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, known locally as Schmotziger Donnerstag fat, or greasy Thursday. This was the time that the remaining fat and lard was to be used before the beginning of Lent. It is one reason why traditionally, you will only find donuts for sale during this time. In some places, this day is known as Weiberfastnacht, or woman’s Fasching, which best known for the tradition of women cutting men’s ties off.
Schmotziger Donnerstag: The fun begins
Our first Schmotziger Donnerstag began with a bang. Or at least with the snap of the bullwhip. Those men that came by selling papers the week before? They were back. At around 5 in the morning, waking the town with the crack of the bullwhip. That first year, the weather was crisp and dry – the perfect weather for exceptionally loud whip cracking. So loud were the whips, that they woke us out of our deep winter slumber, and sent us to the balcony in our pajamas to figure out what was stirring in the dark early morning. It was a while before we saw anything, but they stopped at the intersection outside of our house and loudly snapped away before moving on. Not long after that, the doorbell rang, and those same individuals were at our door, ready for schnapps. It was not their first that day.
If the early morning whips and schnapps weren’t enough to clue me in that something about this day were just a bit out of the ordinary, the walk to school most assuredly removed any remaining doubts. First there was the clown shoveling the driveway. Then there were the glimpses of unnatural iridescent wigs of the passing motorists, and finally there was the Kindergarten. Everyone was wearing a costume, everyone except us that is. As I left my disheartened children there in the sea of costumes, the teachers reminded me of the early release from school that day.
School, and most everything else in our town closed early on Schmotziger Donnerstag because the Narren – the fools take over. Members of each of the different Faschingvereins (clubs) went to the Kindergartens and schools, and freed the children for the rest of the holiday. Later that same day, both the town hall and the local military Kaserne would also be taken over, and the reign of the Narren began.
My children were somewhat befuddled by the events at the Kindergarten. A person wearing one of the crazy chicken suits, a witch, one of the whip cracking men, and something that slightly resembled an Eskimo came to the school. My son explained to me that the person in the crazy chicken suit was chasing the children around with a pig penis, and hitting them over the head. He said it was OK, because they’d cleaned it, and blew it up so there was no more pee in it. Eventually, I figured out that one of the groups fashioned balloons out of pig bladders. Since my son didn’t know the German word for bladder, he went with a word he did know. I’m sure they are going to have interesting recollections from their time in German Kindergarten.
Finally, the mystery of the chicken suit is solved
That afternoon, our neighbor accompanied us to the town center, where we watched the first of the weekend’s parades. Each of the town’s Faschingvereins, along with the town band lead a procession to bring the Narrenbaum (fool’s tree) to the town square. The music of the marching band is contagious, and soon audience and parade participants alike are shouting, swaying and jumping in time to its tunes.
The raising of a tree in Germany is a spectacular event, one that everyone should have on their must see list. The raising of the Narrenbaum is no exception. If you combined a Christmas tree and a Maypole, you might end up with a Narrenbaum. It is a large pine tree, entirely stripped of branches – except at the top. Suspended around the top of the tree is a hoop, adorned with streamers.
As we stood along the side of the town square watching the tractor carefully thread through the narrow streets pulling the seemingly never-ending tree behind it, I began to wonder how on earth they would erect this enormous tree.
If you know where to look, hidden away in nearly every German square, you’ll find a tree stand, safely tucked away waiting for the next holiday. This is where the group of men in matching blue shirts and silly hats stopped with their Narrenbaum. Later, I would learn that these were members of the Hexenverein, the witches club – which is oddly enough, all men. The tools they use to erect the trees are similar everywhere. They line series of poles linked together with chains over the length of the tree. The men push up, and those furthest from the base move their poles closer in. Although you can’t help but wonder if they’ll drop it and crush the spectators, it is a carefully orchestrated event, and it usually goes up without a problem. From there the Narrenbaum sits ruling over the festivities from the center of the market square.
As the Hexen put the final touches on the tree, the younger members of the group perform in the now empty square. Young boys with whips show off their skills, and young girls costumed in the Eskimo looking garb of one verein perform a dance. Finally it is time for the crowds to disperse, but the festivities continue throughout the weekend.
The festivities continue
Although it varies in every town, there are usually several parties and events to attend before the celebrations end on the eve of Ash Wednesday. Our town had several, so many in fact, that were many events we never made it to! The entire long weekend, from Thursday to Tuesday is packed with things to do for young and old alike.
Our next event was early Saturday afternoon, when we gathered – fully costumed this time, at the foot of the Narrenbaum to participate in the Kinderumzug and Kinderball, the Children’s parade and ball. Accompanied by a portion of the band and members of the various Vereins, we massed together – to motley a crew to consider it marching – to the Stadthalle a kilometer or so away. Upon our arrival, there were games to play, wursts to eat and beer to drink. The children ran amok with their compatriots, and the parents sat amid the chaos enjoying the afternoon with friends and family.
And still more parades
The real craziness sets in with the Rosenmontag großer närrischer Umzug – the big fool’s parade. I’m not sure there is anyone who can do a parade like the Germans. I love German parades, and Fasching parades are quite possibly the very best of them.
Almost every town in Southern Baden-Württemberg has a Fasching Verein or two. Throughout the Fifth Season (as Fasching, which lasts from 11 minutes after the 11 hour on 11.11 to midnight on Shrove Tuesday, is known in Germany) clubs make the rounds and participate in multiple parades throughout surrounding regions.
Each group has a different legacy, and while some are more recently incorporated, there are several that date back to centuries past. In our town, the oldest of the clubs were first seen in the mid 1800’s, and the most recent was formed in 1998. Some of the clubs are men only, some women only, others mixed. During the parade, you will see children marching with their parents, bedecked in miniature matching costumes, ensuring the traditions continue for another generation.
Some of the groups make their own masks and costumes, while others have magnificently hand carved wooden masks. Each one is a unique work of art. There is no end to the variety of costumes. There are witches, animals, demons, clowns, and everything in between. As they pass, they shout a greeting and the crowd echoes with the correct response. Each group has a different greeting, with a different response required, but they do pass out sheets at different points in the parade. For the children, there is candy. Lots and lots of candy. That first year, I was pushing a large double stroller, making us an easy target for nearly every wildly costumed participant. Each group that went by made sure to toss several handfuls of candy into the children’s laps. By the end of the parade, they were nestled snuggly in a blanket of bon-bons.
The final event of the Fasnet extravaganza is also one of the most endearing the Hemdglonkerumzug mit Hexenverbrennung. the parade of the Nightshirts and the burning of the witch. This marks not only the end of the Fasching, but burning the witch drives out the last of the evil winter spirits. Soon the days will lengthen and the warm weather returns. It is a fabulous experience, which I wrote about in an article at Use Your Difference Magazine, which you can read all about here.
We spent three years in our first small German town, and we completely fell under the magical spell of Fasnet. While Bavaria does celebrate Fasching, and several towns hold parades, it didn’t compare to the all-out celebration we’d already experienced. It is a wonderful family friendly festival during the day, with activities and parades for everyone to enjoy.
What I loved most about this event was the full-out participation. Everyone was a part of the celebration, whether as a spectator or a participant, they are sharing a tradition that links the generations.