Today, somewhat on a lark (as most of my travels are), I went to the Fasnacht celebration in Offenburg, a town more or less an hour due north of Freiburg.
Fasnacht (or Fasnet, or Fasent, or Narrenzunft, depending on which dialect you’re working in) is a really big deal in Schwäbischer country. People compare it to Carnevale because of what it celebrates, but in practice it reminded me more of the Mummers’ Day Parade in Philly more than anything else. Apparently in Northern Germany, Carnevale is celebrated like Halloween in the States - people get dressed up in whatever costumes they want and go out on the streets and party on Fat Tuesday. Budesland Bayern doesn’t really celebrate either, so Fasnacht is really Schwäbische-Allemanische. It’s really cool and very traditional - people get dressed up, but they have these old traditional costumes and carved wooden masks, that are weird (the costumes fall into the categories of witch, devil, jester and soldier), but beautiful in their own right. Apparently some of these costumes are handed down through the generations.
Technically Fasnacht begins January 6 or February 2, depending on who you’re talking to, and when they think the Christmas season ends. This means that Fasnacht is the time between Christmas and Lent. I guess one is aware Lent is coming and must prepare in some way. This seems to be a pretty kickass way to prepare.
The celebrations really start to amp up in the weeks before Lent begins (Ash Wednesday), and a lot of the different towns have their big celebrations on different weekends throughout the month. I’m sure there is a practical component to this. Freiburg—the biggest city in the region—will have its biggest celebration on what we call “Fat Tuesday” but is known an “Rosendienstag” around these parts. I’m excited for that, but back to Offenburg.
First: I almost didn’t go. It was raining the entire day, and I wasn’t sure if it was worth it to stand out in the rain all day, but it was, and am so glad I went even though I was thoroughly drenched by the time I got back on the train to Freiburg.
When I got off the train in Offenburg around 9.30 I knew exactly where to head: you could hear rumblings from city center, plus the tricklings of costumed characters making their way into that part of town as well. I saw the Rathaus (town hall) in its trappings, all dressed up for Offenburg’s celebrations. Offenburg call its festivites “Narrenzunft,” which means fools’ guild. As far as I can tell, Fasnacht has two intertwined traditions, and depending on which town you’re in, one is more emphasized than the other. The first is getting the devils out of town before Lent begins (though I am sure this also has pre-Christian origins), thus we see the witch and devil costumes. The fools/jesters represent this too actually: they are a sign of the folly and transience of this world and what becomes of you if you give yourself over to its pleasures rather than those in the next. The second is the guilds of the town: on Fasnacht the guilds celebrate their (and thereby, the town’s) freedom—they serve no feudal lord. This is why each guild traditionally has its own costume. And also why there was today in Offenburg an “attack” on the Rathaus to show that the people can depose their ruler if they should ever need to (and thus, the soldier costumes).
It was really a lot of fun to see it all, despite the rain. The costumes were truly amazing, and a bit scary. I can imagine really being frightened by them as a child. There was an MC on the Rathaus balcony telling us all about the traditions of Narrenzunft, and occaionaly serenading us with a song that went like this: Zu Hause gibt’s kein Bier, so will ich bleib echt hier / “At home there’s no beer, so I’ll stay right here.” I picked up a lot of what he was saying, but some was dialect so I couldn’t understand it all. Every once in awhile the MC would yell “NARRI!” and the crowd would yell back, “NARRO!” It makes no sense, and it’s not supposed to—these are the Narrenrufe, the fools’ cries. There was also a chant the crowd broke into every so often: Schelle, schelle Sechser, alle alti Hexe, Narro! Narro! Narro! / “Ring ring the sixes, all the old witches! The fools! The fools! The fools!” Get out of town bad spirits, the guilds are here to stay.
At 10 the procession started at the Hauptbahnhof and made its way into town. All of the different guilds were in their costumes, and marching bands were playing, and people were throwing candy out to the crowd, and costumed figures were scaring little kids, and every once in awhile one of the costumed would yell, NARRI! and the crowd would respond, NARRO!
And it rained.
After the parade had moved through the town square, those dressed as soldiers circled back around into formation. They also had a battering ram with them. At this point a woman who I am pretty sure is mayor was up in the town hall balcony and she began to tell the commander that she ruled the town and the soldiers could nothing about it. The commander disagreed—he was going to knock down the town hall door and bring money to the people and the town. The mayor told him she could give money to the town and proceeded to throw a bunch of (chocolate) gold coins at the crowd. The commander would not be appeased. After firing a very real, very loud canon several times, the battering ram crew knocked down the town hall doors and the soldiers went in and escorted the mayor down. Then she was forced to serve the crowd free pretzels and beer (SCORE!).
And it rained harder.
When the antics at the Rathaus were finished, another guild with blue costumes and green devil Holzmaske (Holz = wood) that hadn’t been in the parade started to build a large structure that looked a lot like a gallows. I didn’t know what was going on, but I certainly wasn’t going to leave and not find out. A group of six guys built this thing incredibly fast, while members of the same guild played in yet another marching band. All of a sudden, the band’s song dropped an octave and from across town I could see more members of the same guild in a procession carrying a guy who was tied up and “struggling.” They marched him to the gallows and handed him over to their fellow guild members, who put him in a bag and strung him up from the gallows. They then tarred and feathered him. When they were finished they threw out little cloth bags of goodies tied up with string, and stamped with what I think is their guild name, and their place, and their traditional mask. I got two. These little bags, plus the beer stein I stole are my souvenirs from the day.
And it rained harder still.
I should note that I don’t know why the guy was tarred and feathered. By this point there was a different MC who only spoke dialect, so I didn’t have a chance.
It was a hell of a lot of fun, nonetheless.
By the end it was really pouring. Had it not been, I would have stayed and explored Offenburg a bit, but by that point every article of clothing I had on with the exception of my underwear, was klitschnass (drenched). It was time to go home.
What a cool day. I’m sure in the coming weeks, I’ll see more Fasnacht celebrations, but I’ll always fondly remember Offenburg as the place where I saw such a thing first.