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Fastnacht in Mainz also Fassenacht, in Swiss German Fasnacht, in Swabia Fasnet, Fasent is often connected to fasten "to fast" by popular etymology, allegedly from celebrations on the eve preceding fasting. Comparison of dialect variants however yields an OHG *fasanaht, with an element fasa- of unclear meaning. A likely derivation is from PIE pwo- "purify" (cognate to pava-mana), or alternatively connected with Middle High German vaselen "prosper, bud" and interpreted as a fertility rite.
Fasching (MHG vaschanc or vaschang) is related, probably originally with a second element -gang instead of -nacht.
Fastnacht 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).
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). and The Ahland, a Fasnet figure of Rottenburg am Neckar
An old tradition in Southern Germany, 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.
In Basel, Fasnacht curiously begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. It starts with the Morgestraich when, at 4am, all the lights go out in the city and carnival participants walk through the streets with beautifully painted lanterns, costumes and typically big-nosed masks, accompanied by drummers and pipers playing piccolo flutes. The festival continues for three days with events for children and displays of floats.
- Carnival of Basel
- Der Überlinger Hänsele
- Pre-Christian Alpine traditions
- Wild Hunt
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- Basler Fasnacht The official site of Fasnacht in Basel
- Fasnachts Comité The Basel Fasnachts Committee
- Konstanzer Fasnacht Pictures of the Swabian–Alemannic Carnival in and nearby Constance
- Typical pictures of the Alemannic folklore Fasnacht
- Oltner Fasnacht The official site of Fasnacht in Olten
- Winterthur Fasnacht The official site of Fasnacht in Winterthur
- Weil der Stadt Fasnet The official site of Fasnet in Weil der Stadt