Fasching Masks: A Tradition of Germany's Pre-Lenten Season
Just when we think that old man winter will never loosen his grip, the time of year when people all over the world join in pre-lenten festivities arrives. Predominantly found in areas with large Catholic populations, this time of year goes by many different names, like Mardi Gras and Carnival. All fundamentally celebrate the same thing, the days leading up to Lent. Observed by most Christian Denominations, Lent is defined as the 40 day period before Easter of penitence and fasting for the believer.
In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, pre-lenten festivities are known as Fasching, Fastnacht or Karneval, depending on the region. While each area has it's own traditions and rituals, Fasching is primarily celebrated in Southwest Germany.
One of the constants in every celebration in Germany, as well as those around the world, is that masks are worn. The carved wooden masks in Southern Germany are especially notable because of their craftsmanship and long history.
Fasching and Masks
While Fasching is a celebration of the days leading up to Lent, its roots can be traced back to pagan times. Carnivals were held with townspeople wearing elaborate and frightening wooden masks to drive out the evil spirits that had settled in the town over the cold dreary winter. Once the spirits had been scared away, the hope was that warmer weather and healthy crops would soon appear.
During medieval times, common folk wore the masks so they could interact with people from higher stations in life during the celebrations. At the same time, commoners could also dress up like, and make fun of the nobility, all while hiding behind the elaborate masks. They could openly mock the politicians and leaders of the town without fear of retribution. This practice so annoyed some nobility that for a short time in the late 1700s the celebrations were banned. This is when the traditions of balls and parties began.
Traditional Fasching Greetings
Today, Fasching is five days filled with revelry. It begins on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. This first day is dedicated to the ladies. Women walk around town, mocking leaders and playing jokes on people. They even snip the bottom off of men's ties. Local clubs host parades throughout the weekend and parties every evening.
The big parade is on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). With shouts of Narri Narro or another traditional parade greeting, groups of masked participants parade down the streets. Witches circle around people and throw them in the air. Fools walk by ringing bells and dressed in their town colors while knocking people's hats off or dancing around an unsuspecting spectator. Hansels walk by with huge pretzels on sticks and if someone is lucky, they get one. Floats go by, bands play loudly and candy is handed out at every turn. Some events include speakers mocking public figures. Fasching, like Mardi Gras and Carnival, is a raucous fun-filled event.
And, as it has always been done, all of this fun and mischief goes on behind the facade of masks. Every town has its own witch, fool and hansel. Harkening back to pagan customs, there are frightening goats head masks with demonic horns. Witch masks have evil eyes an warts of all shapes and sizes. Some masks are happier and not at all frightening.
Exquisitely carved out of wood, some of these masks are quite old and have been handed down from generation to generation. Unlike the delicate masks of New Orlean's Mardi Gras or Venice's Carnival, these masks can be quite heavy, weighing up to 20 pounds.
Even though it is a cold time of the year, it's definitely a fun time to visit the area, although make reservations in advance. Some of the towns with big, well-known parades are pretty full during Fasching. And if you are lucky enough to be in Germany during this season, try to go to some of the smaller town festivities. It's easier to see the parade and it's not quite as crowded. It is also a little bit more like it used to be.
Fasching masks are an integral and fascinating part of Southern German tradition and make pre-lenten festivities that much more intriguing.
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© 2012 Claudia Mitchell