Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht

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This article is about Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht or Fasnacht. For Fasching, see Carnival in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. For others, see Carnival (disambiguation).
For the doughnut traditionally made on Shrove Tuesday, see Fasnacht (pastry).
"Hopfennarr" from Tettnang with costume and mask.

The Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht, Fasnacht (in Switzerland) or Fasnat/Faschnat (in Vorarlberg), is the pre-Lenten carnival in Alemannic folklore in Switzerland, southern Germany, Alsace and Vorarlberg.


Popular etymology often links Fastnacht (in Mainz also Fassenacht, in Switzerland 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 mask in Swabia

Fastnacht is held in the settlement area of the Germanic tribes of the Swabians and Alemanns, 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. In Standard German, schmutzig means "dirty", but in the Alemannic dialects schmotzig means "lard" (Schmalz), or "fat";[1] "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.[2] 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).

Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht distinguishes itself from the Rhenish Carnival but did not develop an independent form until the first quarter of the 20th century. Whilst Carnival developed a new form of Fastnacht in the 18th century, an influence, which was taken up by the Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht as well, contemplations to look back took place in the 20th century, recalling the traditions of Fastnacht in the Middle Age and the Early modern period.

The Fastnacht cycle[edit]

Although in some places the Fastnacht celebrations already begin on November 11th, as is common in the Rhenish regions, in Swabian-Allemanic areas, Fastnacht events typically only start off after the festive days following Christmas - on January 6th, which is also Epiphany.

Drawing on an old custom, this is the day when the masks get a dusting and the first events and parades can begin. Strictly speaking, Fastnacht only begins with Fat Thursday (the Thursday before Ash Wednesday), which is the climax of the celebrations and the time when the parades and other celebrations become more frequent. There are also a number of recipes that are traditionally cooked at that time.

Old Fastnacht, Buurefasnacht[edit]

Even though the reformation through the Konzil von Benevent advanced the beginning of Lent by six days, the original date (Tuesday, six weeks before eastern) still was not forgotten. Especially in rural areas as well as in protestant areas, the Konzil von Benevent was not accepted.


Origin in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age[edit]

Following the reformation, not only the period of fasting was dispensed with in the regions affected, but also the Fastnacht celebrations came to an end in many parts of Central Europe. Despite this, the tradition was still kept alive in individual protestant towns for some time. The Carnival of Basel is, as a result of the reformation, often presumed to be held at a later point than in other Swabian-Allemanic towns. This is due to a decision made by the church in the 11th century, stating that Sundays were to be excluded from Lent. As a consequence, Ash Wednesday was preponed by six days. Basel (and also some other towns) however still held on to the traditional day.

Before Baroque, Fastnacht had been dominated by relatively plain costumes. However, during the emergence of Baroque, the Fastnacht motives and figures went through a period of revaluation and refinement. This especially applied for the commonly used masks, which were now carved out of wood instead of using clay or paper, like it had been customary before. Additionally to this development there was an increasing and distinct Italian influence on Fastnacht, based on the Commedia dell’arte.

Despite its revaluation during Baroque, Fastnacht was thought to be a „primitive, outdated custom from the dim and distant past “ in the Enlightenment. Due to that common point of view, celebrating Fastnacht stopped or was even forbidden. This changed when, influenced by Romanticism, Fastnacht once again started to thrive.

Development into modern Fastnacht[edit]

Up until the 20th century Fastnacht was only a local event that was celebrated solely at one’s hometown. At the beginning of the 20th century the jester guilds started to organize and form jester’s unions. This led to the founding founding of the Vereinigung Schwäbisch-Alemannischer Narrenzünfte (VSAN) in 1924. Forming this nationwide umbrella organization was necessary because of the unstable political situation and many regional Fastnacht bans. By creating the VSAN the jesters wanted to actively represent their political interests. Furthermore they wanted to foster and preserve their culture, which is the main task of the organization today. After its establishment the VSAN quickly became popular to such an extent, that it had to stop accepting new members.

Characters of the Swabian-Allemannic Fastnacht[edit]


Narren (Jesters) probably appeared at the same time like demon figures and in various forms. In one part of the Black Forest, the „Weißnarr“, (white jester), for instance, is common. One of the oldest figures of Fastnacht though are the „Narro“, also called the „aristocrat of Alemannic Fastnacht“, or the „Hansel“. Other jesters with a long tradition are the „Biß“and its pendants. The aforementioned „Weißnarr“ is mostly represented by men but some are accompanied by a female companion during parades, who often either don't wear any costume or a plain traditional and regional one. The „Weißnarren's“ costume is made of a white linen garment, which is elaborately depainted or embroidered. Compared with the „Weißnarr's“ baroque elegance, jesters such as the „Blätzlenarr“ or the „Spättlenarr“ and „Fleckennarr“ may look a bit earthy, an impression which might also be caused by their costume, which is made of old fabric remnants. Due to increasing wealth nowadays though, many costumes are being designed more elaborate. Single pieces of a costumes' fabric, for instance, are blind-stitched manually. Nevertheless, the „Flecklenarren's'“ costumes and masques have been elabouratively refined during baroque and thus a new group of jesters, called „Fransennarren“ which are to be found until today in several cities celebrating Svabian-Alemanic Fastnacht, emerged. There is a geographical difference between the Svabian-Alemanic jesters though, hence in some regions the masques are mainly made of cloth whereas they are mainly made of wood in others. A group of jesters called „Spättlehansel“ presents a particular rarity within Svabian-Alemannic jesters since their masks are equipped with a moveable mandible. Yet another group of jesters near to the Swiss border called the „Narro-Altfischerzunft“ in Laufenburg not only possess south-western Germany's oldest noted masque made of wood, but also had been developing a positively aristocratic self-image over the centuries. Coming from Italy and connected to the Carnival's triumph in the 18th and 19th century, the figure „Bajazzo“ emerged and influenced some Svabian-Alemanic figures like e.g. the „Rössle- and Schellenhansele“. Due to that, those figures use to carry bells, a pig's bladder or mirrors at parades until today.


Morgestraich in Basel (2013)

In protestant Basel, Fasnacht astonishingly begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, since it has been existing since its many re-inventions before and after the Reformation, in its current form since about 1835.[3] Since then, it is considered to be a civil Fasnacht, quite contrary to the other large Fasnacht events in the Catholic cantons of Switzerland, mainly the one in Lucerne. The Basler Fasnacht 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 piccolos. The festival continues for three days with events for children and displays of floats.

Fasnacht in Willisau (2012)

The Lucerner Fasnacht, based on religious, Catholic backgrounds, starts every year on the Thursday before Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) with a big bang at 5am called Morgenwacht (Morning Watch). There are big parades in the afternoon on Schmotzige Donnerstag (literally: Lardy Thursday)[1] and the following Monday, called Güdismontag (literally: Paunch Monday), which attract tens of thousands of people. Lucerne's Carnival ends with a crowning finish on Güdisdienstag (literally: Paunch Tuesday) evening with a tremendous parade of big bands, lights and lanterns with even a larger audience. Quite contrary to the Basler Fasnacht, a large part of the audience are also dressed up in costumes, especially in the evenings.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Woher hat der Schmutzige Donnerstag seinen Namen?". Regionalzeitung Rontaler AG (in German). 17 February 2013. Retrieved 2015-02-07. 
  2. ^ Mask of an "ugly Percht"
  3. ^ "Geschichte der Basler Fasnacht" (in German). Altbasel.ch. 24 January 2009. Retrieved 2015-02-07. Pierre Farine sieht ihre Geburtsstunde mit dem Beginn der fasnächtlichen Berichterstattung durch die Presse 1835 

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