It was 8 am on a snowy Monday morning. There were hundreds of motley clad and colored spectators stomping their cold feet, all waiting for the boisterous merrymaking (Narrensprung) at the Old Town of Endingen (Kaiserstuhl), with 3500 costumed Narren from five countries. Among the Swabian-Allemanic figures were also masked guests from Belgium, Switzerland, Venezuela and Italy (the Ballerini of Bogolino from Lombardy).
On this cold, wintry morning the ghoulish, tragic-comical figures of Swabian-Allemanic origin were underway to drive away the chilly, unfriendly, bitter winter with much noise and ado. And there were 1,468 of them. There they came all 3500 of them. Rows of toddlers and grown-ups, men and women in yellow and scarlet dresses with big cow-bells hanging from their shoulder-straps, and red roses and black-painted beards. Each had a small basket filled with bon-bons, sweets and chocolates which they strew to the public who greeted them with: Narri, Narro! The costumed Narren, as they are called in Germany, were preceded by the eleven elders of the town. In Nepal, the five-village elders in every hamlet were called the panchas, and the Hindu Panchayat government was toppled in 1990 after a democratic struggle.
The other masked figures were: the cute Hansele, the lame Schantle, Grottagoscha and the witches, whom you could recognize from the masks they were wearing and the notorious broom-sticks with which they d provoke you. The oldest characters of Fasnet were the Narro of Villingen, the Hansel from Donaueschingen, H|fingen and Brdunlingen. The Spdttlhansel from Wolfach carried a tin-larve, with a moveable lower jaw. Almost all the Narren carried attributes such as bells, pig's bladder, poles or mirrors. They came with pomp, music, tomfoolery and their characteristic movements, distributing sweets, oranges, brezeln (salty-bread), sausages and dry humor.
The word Fasnet is derived from two words and 'fas' means growth, fruit, juice, and 'net' or 'nacht' can be traced back to the Roman story-writer Titus, who wrote in the eleventh piece of Germania..."they don't even count like us, in days, but in nights...the night is manifested as the harbinger of day." The Fasnet in south-west Germany and Northern Switzerland is a very old tradition, which dates back to old Rome, begins on the 6th of January and ends on Thursday (Schmotz'ge Dunnschdig). Schmotzig is a synonym for 'fat' and in these days the Germans bake tasty cakes called Schmalzgebdck. Back in 1903 seven masked figures took part in the Narrensprung, as a countermeasure against the town people, who preferred the carnival, where they shout and greet people with 'Helau' and 'Alaaf.' The Z|nfte, as the cliques are called, organized themselves and founded in 1924 the United Swabian-Allemanic Narrenz|nft, which has 69 members today. After World War II, the cries of the knaves became the identification characters of the respective organisations.It might have its origin in the cry of joy called 'Juchzen' in German.
Fasnet was originally the season of merrymaking just before Lent. But today it s three days between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. The Fasnet is run by the different cliques (Z|nfte) and there are : musical corps, garde-girls with beautiful long legs, gymnastic and acrobatic groups, clowns, witches, sheiks, belly dancers, people in their night-gowns. You name 'em, they have 'em. In Germany they say, when three Germans get together they create an association (Verein) and get organized. The planning, coordination and discipline that the German fasnet demands is organized with typical German thoroughness. To a Nepalese it seems like Gaijatra, Lakhe and Mani Rimdu festival on the same day.
Masks always have an element of religion, myth or magic in them. There are people who wear masks to hide their Id which is normally written all over one s face. With a mask you can transform your current facial expressions into another permanent one. You symbolize another being. And in Fasnet or carnival a participant goes costumed in order to be what he always wanted to be, but never dared due to social inhibitions. If you re wearing a mask you can really flip-out, without being recognized. A bored housewife might play the vamp for three days, and an over-worked and under-paid clerk portrays a billion-dollar sheik and so forth.
Back to the Narrensprung again. The most adorable cavalier amongst the Narren is the Narro from Oberndorf, with his Brezelstange (salty bread held on a long pole). It reminded me of the Sel-roti that the Nepalese make during the Tihar festival. The motley fools (Narren) besides having their carnival license, freedom and rights, also have their rules of conduct during the processions and the merry-making period. For instance in Schramberg, where I had gone the previous winter, you had to sing the refrain:
Hoorig, hoorig isch die Katz.
Und wenn die Katz nit hoorig isch,
Dann fdngt sie keine Mduse nit.
Hairy, hairy is the cat. And when the cat isn't hairy, then she can't catch the mice (then the maidens will not like it(!) is another version. Then and only then, will you be blessed with a delicious brezel. Thomas and Claudia, some relatives of mine, who took part in the costumed procession had certainly made them sing the Fasnet-song before they handed them the bread with a blessing (Brezelsegen). It had been lovely to know someone under the masks.
But don t be surprised if a Narro clobbers you with an inflated pig s bladder tied at the end of a stick in Elzach. Or when another holds you with his wooden scissors, and a pair of hideously masked witches grab your arms and legs, put you in a cart and you become a part of the procession, and the nasty witches pour buckets of confetti over you. It s carnival time, and you can t afford to get mad at anyone. Humor is the order of the day.
During the Third Reich the National Socialists tried to cover up the religious origin of the Fasnet, by giving it so-called Germanic trait. But even they didn't really succeed in changing the tradition of the Narrensprung and the meeting-of the-cliques (Z|nftetreffen). The historical and traditional springing-of-the-knaves in Villingen, erlingen, Elzach, Rottweil and Oberndorf-upon-the-Neckar dates back to the early Middle Ages. In the beautiful town of Rottweil you can get to see 3,000 Narren in historical masks: the Federhannes, Schantle and the Biter or Guller. However, with urbanization the old Fasnet traditions have somehow lost their true colors, religious significance and the vegetarian-cult. Fasnet has sadly enough become merely an excuse for fun-making and revelry in the towns. The province, nevertheless, tries to retain the traditional character, with strict dress, mask and behavioral regulations. For instance, a narro who gets drunk and creates a nuisance risks getting banned by the organization committee.
On Wednesday night at 7:30 pm we drove to Dorhan, a small village near Oberndorf to watch the traditional Fasnet-burning. In the middle of this Swabian village there was an open space surrounded by fir-trees. The eerie Fasnet figures came wildly dancing from all sides with flaming torches. There were ugly witches with crooked noses, Dornhaner Lauser with lice painted on the backs of their tunics, the charming leggy guard girls in Prussian step, the village band and naturally a figure dressed like an old witch to symbolize the winter.
After a short speech in Swabian dialect with the words: Now the winter will be burnt and banned, and the days of revelry are over, the figure was set afire. As the flames grew bigger and bigger, their shadows also took gigantic proportions and the witches and ghoulish Lausers and Narros shed tears and wailed and howled (feigned naturally).
Well, the winter was driven away, but we still had cold feet.