The adventures of a born-and-raised-in-Michigan girl (OK, woman) who's moved to Bavaria with her husband, kids, and dog.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

February and Fasnet/Fasnacht/Fasching

Fasnacht -- or Fasnet in the Rhine River area (west of here, where Martin is from) -- also known as Fasching here in Bavaria -- is the German version of Mardi Gras, although it's not your typical Mardi Gras over here. I've never been south of the Mason-Dixon line during February, but I have a pre-conceived notion about what Mardi Gras (New Orleans style) is all about, from both mass media and secondhand anecdotes.

Fasnet (Rhine area) traditions are quite historic and date back to Roman times. Originally a pagan festival to dispel the evils of Winter and encourage Spring, it was integrated into the Catholic calendar a handful of centuries ago (don't ask me for the exact date, history is not my strong suit!).

While Fasching -- the Bavarian version -- is also celebrated on the same calendar, it is hardly worth the effort (a few teens with colored hair walking around during the week long school vacation, and some non-traditional parades with commercial floats, etc., from what we hear... the celebration here in Ingolstadt alternates years and 2006 is the "off" year).

So we headed west on two separate weekends in February to catch a couple of the larger Fasnet parades. Each weekend in February a different town (and I do mean town, not city) hosts a Fasnet parade and invites participants from all of the 70-plus (Rhine) towns, including towns in northern Switzerland. We caught the parades in Haigerloch (famous for its castle built into a cliff where (thankfully unsuccessful) atomic tests were conducted during WWII, unbeknownst to the Allies) and in Messkirch.

Of course, each town has its own celebration, starting on "Dirty Thursday" and over the weekend, culminating on Fat Tuesday. In Martin's town, this consisted of the mayor giving the keys to the town hall (Rathaus) to the head of the Fool's Association on Dirty Thursday. The first order of business was for all the fools to release the children from school, and take them from one business to another, where they were given wurst, pretzels, treats, etc. The rest of the celebration was for the adults and no doubt involved a bit of beer too.

But I digress. Back to the larger parades at hand.

Martin had explained to me that each town has its own Fasnet "characters," if you will, generally between four and seven characters per town. The official Fasnet museum is near Haigerloch so we spent some time there the day before the parade and the concept truly crystallized for me.

Most towns have a witch (hexe), for example in Martin's town the witch character is called Eckhexe, after a woman (accused of witchcraft) who lived on Eckstrasse:

As you can see, witch costumes vary considerably from town to town:

Of course, there were other non-witch characters also designed to scare away the evils of winter:

Another aspect of the holiday is to have fun and poke fun of the military or government. So many also have a court jester type of character:

Many characters have bells on the costumes, some of them look very old and very heavy:

There is a bit of military flair to many of the costumes; the pomp and circumstance of these is a strange contrast with the witches.

Many towns have an animal character as well, you can see everything from cats to bats (and yes, this is all real fur):

Each town also has a marching band, which only plays the town song. Most songs I didn't recognize, but one was "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and another sounded a lot like "Runaround Sue." Most were typical marches, but I got a kick out of seeing an entire glockenspiel section in many bands. The Swiss bands were more of the fife and drum variety, and their masks were paper mache (not carved wood).

Of course, some of the band costumes were a bit more playful. Perhaps the town is known for a certain shape of bread roll. Or maybe the band members just think kilts (or sombreros) are cool and exotic. Who really knows the stories behind some of these costumes?

Another motif seen among the characters is botanical. Perhaps your town is perfect for growing hops... or borders the Black Forest.

As you can tell, the characters are as unique as the towns themselves. Literally. Is your town famous for its pretzels? Is there a flour mill in town? Did someone go sleepwalking and land in the flour bin? Or go over a waterfall in a barrel? We really wondered about some of these:

Interacting with the crowd is a big part of the event as well. Penny candy is often thrown for kids, and there is everything from very long (LOUD) whip-cracking going on to being bonked on the head by a bunch of inflated pig bladders.

All in all, it was really a stunning experience, to see all the costumes and to get a feel for the personality of each town. For anyone that sews, carves, knits, or embroiders, the workmanship seen in each costume is truly overwhelming. To see so many costumes in one place (and then town after town of them) is amazing. You quickly realize that the money (about $1,500 to $2,000 per costume) and hours that go into making each one are quite awe-inspiring.

In each of these three-hour parades there were about 5,000 participants, and one mega parade (that we didn't attend) had an estimated 15,000 participants and happens once every four years.

Definitely worth the trip, I highly recommend it.


Anonymous Lisa said...

Amazing parades; fantastic costumes. Even at 72 dpi I can see how beautifully made they are. Mardi Gras costumes always seemed skimpier, but I guess the climate is cooler... Lisa

4:32 AM

Blogger mich-girl-in-bavaria said...

It really is overwhelming to see them in person. Here in Bavaria it was also interesting to see what the stores stocked in the way of costumes... a lot of recycled Halloween stuff (pumpkins don't seem to go as well with Fasnacht/Mardi Gras as the witches do) and tons of clown costumes.

5:41 PM

Blogger Laura McReynolds said...

How cool! I bet the kids were awestruck--I certainly am, even way over here in Michigan gawping at my computer screen. This is a brutal winter here. Not very cold, hardly any snow, but lots and lots of depressing, overcast days and several very stubborn upper respiratory viruses going around (I know families, including ours, who've been coughing more or less since Christmas, and other families--thankfully not including hours--where strep has made the rounds TWICE since the New Year). I've responded by drinking more Cosmopolitans, getting acrylic nails, and highlighting my hair (apparently I'm wishing I could join the cast of the now-defunct Sex and the City). You, however, have more cheerful and doubtless more healthful options--what a wonderful celebration!--Laura

4:26 AM

Blogger mich-girl-in-bavaria said...

Wow, sounds like you are doing (or looking!) great, despite the winter health setbacks. We've been healthy over here, except when I had a nasty stomach flu virus (naturally that was the day Martin was out of town on business!).

Gray skies abound here, as well, no getting away from those in winter I guess. But the sun comes out occasionally so no real complaints.

8:31 AM


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