Leisure: Germans Gone Wild

  • Jack Smith

On a moonlit winter’s eve in Villingen, one of those quaint villages that abound in Germany’s Black Forest, you decide to go for a stroll. The way leads along the 13th-century wall that surrounds the town, down streets lined with homes and shops dating to the Middle Ages, and past the ancient Rathaus, the town hall. The scene is exactly as you had envisioned it would be, except for one jarring note: the strange statue that stands in the Obere Strasse, the village’s main shopping corridor. It depicts a man and woman with grinning, smooth-featured faces and dressed in shapeless, bulky costumes. Moving closer, you see their faces are actually masks and that the man’s costume is painted with lions and bears. Odd, you think, but things are about to become stranger still, for this is the season of Fasnet, when ancient customs are afoot.

From somewhere, a dissonant jangling noise fills the night air as a procession emerges from the shadows of the road ahead. Hundreds of people are approaching, all draped in sleigh bells, and they are hopping and skipping as they come. Some two dozen bringing up the rear carry whips with which they lash the air, creating a cacophony of crackles that sounds like firecrackers. Noise aside, tonight’s event is orderly enough, but this was not always so of such processions. In medieval times, the sound of bells was the sign for decent townspeople to lock their women and children indoors, for the revels they signaled were forbidden by the church. Nowadays, with the religious sanctions having been lifted, everyone participates in the celebration, but Fasnet remains what it has been for centuries: the most primal, most mystical, and most riotous festival in all of Europe.

Also known as Fasching in Bavaria and Karneval in the Rhineland, it is a time when the normally staid, logical Germans, suspending society’s conventions and casting inhibitions to the winds, don ornate, often risqué costumes and cavort wildly in the streets. The Germans call it their “fifth season,” a pre-Lenten final fling that lasts for days, prompting the newspapers to offer tips on how to survive Fasching: “Don’t drink too much. Eat well. Get some sleep. Keep your feet warm. Drink a bottle of mineral water,” the Konstanz Südkurier advises its readers.

Although it may be hazardous to Germans’ health, Fasching grows bigger every year. Northern Germans who, a decade ago, dismissed Fasching as primitive tomfoolery ill befitting the more cosmopolitan orbits of Hamburg and Hannover now embrace it as their own. German prime-time TV presents night after night of Sitzungen: glitzy galas featuring celebrities, politicians, brass bands, and battalions of high-kicking girls in boots and miniskirts. Across the country, normally decorous young women turn adventurous and roam the streets snipping neckties off any man foolhardy enough to wear one.

Actually, it is inaccurate to speak of Fasching as a German celebration, because the ceremonies and traditions vary from one region of the country to another and even from one neighboring village to the next. In some towns the number 11 takes on caba­listic significance, with the formalities beginning at 11 minutes after 11 pm on the 11th day of the 11th month, at which time officials and other members of the various Fasching gather in groups of 11. In other communities the number has no particular meaning. In the Rhineland, the pomp and ceremony swirls around the gaudily costumed Prinz Karneval, whose entou­rage includes bodyguards dressed in 18th-century military uniforms. In Black Forest towns, the starring role goes to a more earthy figure, Narr the fool, the masked figure in baggy pants seen in Villingen’s statue. The Narr’s responsibil­ities are to mock every elected official in sight, insult his neighbors, and outrage the unwary with lewd dances and songs.

But whether it is called Fasching, Kar­neval, or Fasnet, it involves more than just fun and games. Beneath the costumes and dances lies a morality tale layered with superstition and mystical implications dating to the Stone Age, when the cave walls of Europe were painted with scenes depicting the central elements of Fasching: the masks, the dance, and the procession. Modern versions of Fasching may resemble a no-holds-barred bacchanal, but a strict protocol prevails at its core, with every detail linked to the ebb and swell of European history.

The Roman Empire is recalled not only in the aqueducts and stone arches so common in Germany, but also in the practices of Fasching, many of which are traceable to the ancient wintertime rite known as the Saturnalia. This festival, which began in the third century B.C., originally was a kind of Roman Thanksgiving, a one-day feast to honor Saturn, the god of harvests. Under the emperor Caligula, however, it had become a weeklong orgy, during which prisoners were released from jail, men dressed as women, authority was lampooned, and a spirit of decadence prevailed. Or, as the Roman moralist Seneca complained, “They’ve taken Saturn out of Saturnalia.”


Saturnalia became so popular in the provinces that even after the rise of the Roman church the holiday continued to thrive. Ultimately, in the fourth century, the church co-opted the celebration as its own. It was a trade-off; earlier that century the church had established a 40-day period of fasting, which it called Lent, to last until Easter. Though generally observed in Rome, it was less popular in the Empire’s outlying provinces. Reluctantly, the church announced that if the Goths, the Gauls, the Celts, and the Alemanni tribes would accept Lent, the church would drop its sanctions against Saturnalia, thereby offering a time of indulgence before the period of denial. What the church had not expected was that its provincial subjects would begin their celebrations earlier and earlier; eventually Rome had to limit Saturnalia to the days and nights from January 6 to Ash Wednesday, about four weeks later.

In the course of the Middle Ages, Saturnalia evolved into a holiday known as the Feast of Fools. Besides an opportunity to indulge one’s most carnal desires, it was also the time to satirize authority, and often as not, this meant the church. By the early 13th century even the priests were getting into the act, parodying their own masses, drinking to excess, and playing dice on the church altars. Finally, in 1210, the church forbade the clergy from taking part in the festivities, a ban the church reiterated in 1246, 1265, and 1444. In the mid-16th century, however, the Council of Trent enacted severe laws against the annual debauch, and in France, Italy, and England, the Feast of Fools grad­ually faded from the scene. But not in Germany, where Fasching–first described in Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem of the early 1200s–was no mere once-a-year bash. Rather, it had become ingrained into the social and political structure, with guilds and fraternities established to uphold the standards of its own local rituals.

So it was a red-letter day for Villingen when, in 1326, Duke Albrecht of Austria, who ruled from the Black Forest to north of Stuttgart, led his entourage into the village to accept the plaudits of his subjects. He was so delighted with his reception that he named the village a royal town, free to celebrate Fasching in its traditional manner. As a result, Villingen’s festival remains much as it was in the 14th century, with a scenario and cast of characters bound to baffle anyone from outside the village.

The action in villingen starts a week before Ash Wednesday, when the villagers skip through the town by moonlight, laden with as much as 40 pounds of sleigh bells to chase away evil spirits and witches. The following Sunday, the Narrs take over the town hall, and the party begins in earnest. The village resonates with the sound of brass bands early the next morning, and the time-honored characters begin parading through town. These include the Butzesel, a creature with the head of a donkey who is driven through the streets by whip-wielding drovers. If the Butzesel succeeds in getting into a tavern, the drovers have to buy a round for the house. Other characters include the Stachi, who resembles the Narr but carries a scissorslike device that reaches out to swipe the hats off onlookers. On his back, the Wuescht carries a straw doll, which the town’s adorable children pelt with snowballs and pinecones as he passes. These activities continue for two days and two nights, until the stroke of midnight on Shrove Tuesday, at which time the fools return the key to the city and settle down to deal with their hangovers.

Similar plots dictate Fasnet celebrations elsewhere in the Black Forest, but as a visit to the nearby city of Konstanz reveals, the variations on this leitmotiv are endless. Here, in this tidy university town on the shores of the eponymous lake, the high point is a nighttime parade of 2,000 students clad in white nightshirts. “Tonight is the night when students take revenge on their teachers,” says a receptionist at the Südkurier newspaper office. “Of all of Germany’s parades and balls, this one is the most fun.”
Outside, it appears the townspeople are not waiting for nightfall. The entire city has become one big parade, with the streets crammed with ballerinas, pirates, cowboys, Indians, vampires, sultans, harem girls, cavemen, medieval monarchs, and princesses, and girls in abbreviated bunny costumes with the words “kiss me” painted in English on their cheeks. In the Lutherplatz, a battle of the bands is in progress, with bands playing samba, jazz, reggae, rock and roll, military airs, and folk tunes, all competing simultaneously for the attention of the crowd.

A small house with Besenwirtschaft posted out front suggests a refuge from the din; the sign indicates that this is a private home licensed to serve beer, wine, and simple fare for the duration of Fasnet. Inside, the place is crowded with locals and visitors. A pair of middle-aged tourists, Kurt and Dieter, from the former East German city of Weimar slide over to make room at their table. “I had heard of Fasnet but didn’t believe it,” says Dieter, happily looking around. “There was nothing like this back home under the old regime.”

A quartet of thirtyish women sit at the next table. Three of them wear black leotards and cats’ ears, while the fourth is dressed as a witch. The witch points to the ceiling from which dozens of severed ties dangle. “It’s symbolic,” she says, glancing over to see if anyone is wearing a tie. “Today we women have the upper hand.”


At about 8 pm, the Besenwirtschaft’s customers move back outside for the parade. The first group of marchers, a brass band, is followed by a group of a hundred students in nightshirts. The students wait until the band has marched 50 or so yards ahead, then they jump up and down yelling “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” before breaking into a run. Another band and another bloc of marchers in nightshirts follow. The marchers carry signs that announce one professor cannot add, another enjoys his beer too much, and another dresses funny. The next group of students carries long poles with papier-mâché caricatures of their teachers attached to them.

Wearing Your Worst in Munich
If Bavaria’s Fasching occurs on a more intimate scale than the Rhineland version, it is because the Bavarians like things down to earth and gemütlich. And things do not get much more relaxed than the Dance of the Marktfrauen, a highlight of Munich’s Fasching season, which takes place at the Bavarian capital’s Viktualienmar­kt. There, every Shrove Tuesday from 2 pm to 5 pm, Munich’s style setters don silly costumes and join the market women for a do-si-do around the vegetable stands. This amiable custom is such a crowd-pleaser that the streets become impassable for blocks around. A more ceremonious event is the Schaefflertanz, or Coopers’ Dance, which recalls the ravages of the Black Death. It began in 1463 when, as a way of restoring normalcy to the city after the devastation of the plague, the coopers took to the streets and danced. Today it takes place only once every seven years, but it is performed for an entire month on the Marienplatz and in other squares around Munich. In the rustic Bavarian villages and in the stylish ski resorts alike, there is no escaping the maddening choruses of “Jo, mir sammem radl do!”–dialect for “Ja, wir sind mit dem fahrrad da”–or “Yes, we got here by bicycle.”

An hour or so later, the parade comes to an end, and things take a turn for the occult as the celebration now centers on a 10-foot-tall head of Satan. A disc jockey sits above its forehead, rock music blares from loudspeakers, strobe lights pulsate, and a fog machine sends clouds of vapor over the square. Statues of saints looking down from a nearby cathedral appear to be dancing. Through the mist come the witch and the cat women from the Besenwirtschaft; they take you by the hand and lead you into the square to dance.

You protest, but you know it is useless. If history is any indication, this is going to be a long night.

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