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Popular etymology often links Fastnacht (in Mainz also Fassenacht, in Swiss German Fasnacht, in Swabia Fasnet, Fasent) with fasten ("to fast") - 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 looks to PIE pwo- "purify" (cognate to pava-mana), or alternatively to Middle High German vaselen "prosper, bud", and interprets the festival 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) 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).
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
- Carnaval (in the Netherlands)
- 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