An old tradition in the valley of the Upper Rhine, southern Germany and Switzerland, Fasnacht or Fastnacht (carnival) is the time of the year when the reign of bad spirits of the cold and grim winter period is over and these spirits are symbolically being hunted down and expelled.
Carnival – Fasnacht in the valley of the Upper Rhine:
A very old tradition
In Swiss German the word Fasnacht is often connected to fasten “to fast” by popular etymology, allegedly from celebrations on the eve preceding fasting.
Comparison of dialect variants however yields to different other origins including some interpreted or connected with fertility rites.
Fasnacht is held in the settlement area of the Germanic tribes of the Swabians and Alemans, where Swabian–Alemannic dialects are spoken. The region covers German Switzerland, the larger part of Baden-Württemberg, Alsace, south-western Bavaria and Vorarlberg (western Austria).
Every year the festival starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, known as Schmotziger Donnerstag or Fettdonnerstag. In Standard German, schmutzig means “dirty”, but in the Alemannic dialects schmotzig means “fat”; “Greasy Thursday”, as remaining winter stores of lard and butter used to be consumed at that time, before the fasting began.
Elsewhere the day is called “Women’s Carnival” (Weiberfastnacht), being the day when tradition says that women take control. In particular regions of Tyrol, Salzburg and Bavaria traditional processions of the Perchten welcome the springtime.
The Schönperchten (beautiful Perchts) represent the birth of new life in the awakening nature, the Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchts”) represent the dark spirits of wintertime. Farmers yearn for warmer weather and the Perchtenlauf (Run of Perchts; typical scenery) is a magical expression of that desire. The nights between winter and spring, when evil ghosts are supposed to go around, are also called Rauhnächte (rough nights).
The nights between winter and spring
An old tradition in the valley of the Upper Rhine, southern Germany and Switzerland, carnival is the time of the year when the reign of bad spirits of the cold and grim winter period is over and these spirits are symbolically being hunted down and expelled.
By the end of winter, each year around January and February, people dress up as demons, witches, earthly spirits and dreadful animals to enact this scene of symbolic expulsion. What happens in fact is an expulsion of the winter season that symbolises death, silence and destruction. (Just look at what happens to plants in a cold winter and you get the image.)
So before spring can come and the perennial cycle of life can start over again, old forms have to be destroyed for new ones to come into existence. The notions ‘carnival’ (carne = meat) or ‘fastnacht’ (= at the wake of Lent) also refer to the beginning of the Christian tradition of the 40 day-long fasting (or Lenting) season. Whereas during carnival, people go mad, chaos rules, hierarchies are overthrown and one indulges in food and drinks, the fasting season marks an end of this. Remembering the suffering and death of Jesus, many Christians abstain from meat, alcohol, sweets and festivities until Easter, the resurrection of Jesus.
All these rituals are telling stories of death, chaos, life-cycles and resurrection.
Carnival — this combination of pagan beliefs and Christian traditions — can thus be interpreted as the symbolic preparation for a new annual cycle.
There is a more recent version of this page about Carnival in the Upper Rhine valley. Click here.