Let me take you back in time to a cold midwinter’s eve early in 2011. It is early in our second calendar year living in a small German town in Southern Baden-Württemberg, and we are in the midst of our first pre-Lenten celebration in Germany.
It is the last night of Fasching and the witches are jumping over a bonfire. This is what I know beforehand. This is my first Fasnet and I am not quite sure what to expect. Already this week, my children were the only ones at the kindergarten NOT dressed in Halloween costumes – in February. But I told my husband the children and I would meet him in the town center later that evening, so we’re off.
We’ve lived here less than a year, and already, I’ve learned a lot about the culture and the people. Both of my young children attend a German Kindergarten just up the street, and the staff and parents alike are eager to introduce me to various aspects of the local culture. We celebrated Saint Martin’s Day in November, Saint Nicholas Day in December, and The Feast of the Three Holy Kings in early January. There were national German holidays to learn, and a new holiday schedule to adjust to, but nothing prepared me for the celebration in Germany known as Fasching.
In the weeks just before Lent, countries around the world countries enjoy festivals and celebrations. You are probably familiar with Carnival in Brazil, Carnivale in Venice, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Images of the still snow-covered streets of Germany are probably not the first thing that pops into your mind. However, here we are, celebrating on the Tuesday before Lent. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, but tonight – tonight is a parade.
Evening arrives early in Germany during the winter months, and we set off into the growing darkness. As we get closer to town, I am beginning to see a theme emerge. One that we have missed – again. While the children and I are bundled against the cold in a manner best suiting a polar expedition, the rest of the town is dressed in white nightshirts. And sleep caps. It is Wee Willie Winky run amok.
“Well, this is new,” I say. This is an expression the children have come to expect on a nearly daily basis from me.
I see someone I recognize from the kindergarten, and after a jumbled conversation of barely intelligible German and English, I manage to get the time (soon) and location (near the Obertor) that something starts. I wish her a pleasant evening and continue on my way.
I follow the nightshirt-clad masses toward the white tower of the Obertor, the towered door in the remnants of the old town wall. Once there, I slowly, carefully, wind my giant double jogging stroller through the growing crowd. There are a few disappointingly small fires, which no one appears prepared to jump over. The road to one side is shut off to through traffic, and we head over to join a small crowd gathering there. The tower itself is decorated for Fasching with garlands of patchwork fabrics. The entire town center is crisscrossed with these multi-colored lines. The small tiles of colored fabric wind through the town like a communal wash line that’s seen one too many windy days. It is festive, it is medieval, it is – oh, hold on a minute, this crowd is starting to move.
So here we are, walking slowly, in a crowd of people in their pajamas, following unseen musicians. This is definitely something new. The tempo increases as we come around the corner. The streets are lined with people, and those lucky enough to live on the parade route hang out of their windows. They shout “Narri”, as we pass, which is met with a roar of “Narro” from the masses in white nightshirts. I am in the Hemdglonkerumzug, a people’s parade at the end of Fasnet, the Fasching Celebration in Southern Germany. We seem to aimlessly meander through the town on streets I did not know existed.
A final turn brings us to the town center, and we catch a glimpse of the giant straw witch that will be burned this evening, before the rest of the Hexen (witches) Guild jump over the fire. This is the final act in the nearly week-long festival of parades and tradition that is meant to chase away the last traces of evil winter spirits and usher in an early spring.
We follow the tide of people to our destination. We are here to burn the witch. There are so many people in the town square, that we can’t actually see the bonfire. We do see thousands of sparks beginning to rise through the air of the cold winter’s night, like stars racing to return to the heavens. We hear the shouts as each of the older members of the Hexen Group test their mettle, and sobriety, attempting to breach the bonfire.
One of my neighbors makes her way over to me through the crowd. Her Eskimo like costume indicates that she is a member of the Fasching Guild known as the Nidler. The Nidlers have been a part of the Fasnet tradition since 1795. She stands before me, holding a hand-carved museum quality wooden mask in her hand. As she looks at me she says, with more than a hint of trepidation “It’s all a little strange, yes?”
“No,” I say as I look around the square. The entire town seems to be here, enjoying the evening and each other. “It is wonderful; I can’t wait until next year!” She looks both relieved and a bit surprised to hear this.
Later as the crowds begin to thin, we pass what is left of the bonfire. It is small enough now for my three year-old to leap over and he does. He relishes, as do we all, this small detour from our ordinary life.
We spent the evening following the assorted Narren guilds, groups whose members dress in elaborate handcrafted costumes and lead the various parades throughout the Fasching Season. Walking to the music, hearing the songs that my children sang in the kindergarten, I am no longer an outsider. I am for this brief moment a part of something. They stop, and I stop. They jump, and I jump. They shout, and I shout. As I sway side to side with the rest of the crowd, I am a celebrant, a participant, in an event that may no longer mean what it did initially, but one that defines the community as it is today. This is my home, for now. No, I don’t know all the words, and no, I am not dressed like everyone else, but I can move with this crowd, and for the moment, this is where we belong.
We lived in Pfullendorf for three years, and each year we eagerly anticipated the arrival of Fasching. The longer we lived there the more we could not only make sense of the traditions, but we could look forward to them. We participated in as many events as we could. My memories of these festive times are a swirl of laughter and costumes, of confetti and smiles, of music, parades, and schnapps. Somehow in the midst of it all, this small German town became a place that will forever be home, in our hearts if not in our passports.
If you’d like to take a look at some videos I shot during our last visit home you can find a Fasching playlist on YouTube