We first moved to Germany in mid-January, 2013. Shortly after our arrival, we noticed that word “Fasching” kept coming up on radios and in posters around town. As we got closer to February, we saw Halloween and Carnival type costumes popping up for sale in our grocery stores and local malls along with festive accessories, typical of an American New Year’s Eve party (poppers, glow sticks, champagne glasses, beads, etc). Upon further research, I discovered that Fasching was the German version of our Mardi Gras, or the rest of the world’s Carnival. There were a few similarities such as costumes, alcohol, music, and parades. There were a few differences such as the inclusion of witches, Krampus like characters, and the abduction of women into giant revolving hay stacks during the parades and men with whips and dead animals hanging from their clothing…
Ok, let me back up.
What is Fasching (or Fasnet)? I’ll keep it simple and be specific to the Stuttgart region and my town since the traditions vary from state to state, region to region.
Way back in pre-Christian times, rituals and parades were thrown during this time of year to scare away winter and make way for the life of spring. Folks wore scary masks, costumes, and branded weapons to scare winter away and all of the evil spirits associated with it. Many Fasching parades to date still reflect this tradition, especially in the southern region where I am currently living.
Today, it is a pre-Lenten observance and which is heavily celebrated in Christian towns all over Germany.
Technically, Fasching begins on 11/11 every year, but each village does a different variation of events leading up to 12:00am on Shroud Tuesday, which is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
- Weiberfastnacht, or “Women’s Fasching” occurs the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. In my town specifically, women storm the town hall and cut off the men’s ties. Some taunt, tease, kiss, and generally harass the men around town and the evening is spent with drinks and a night out on the town. On this date I have seen many men walking through my town and going about their day as usual while donning ties that have been crudely cut in half, or cut right below the knot, and bright red lipstick smeared on their cheeks.
- Rosenmontag, or “Rose Monday” occurs the Monday before Ash Wednesday and in my area, is when many of the larger parades and events take place. Smaller villages and communities typically celebrate their Fasching parades the weekend before Ash Wednesday to let the larger cities shine for Monday. Many local churches and schools also celebrate by having Fasching costume parties and dances on this day.
- Fastnachtdienstag, or “Fasching Tuesday” is the final day of Fasching and festivities should end by midnight.
We decided to attend Weil Der Stadt’s Fasnet (Fasching) parade as our first introduction to this cultural phenomenon only weeks after our arrival in Germany. Weil Der Stadt is a small medieval town about a twenty-minute train ride away, but the town quickly goes from a population of under 20k to over 60k during their Fasnet parade. We arrived by shuttle after having purchased our passes from some folks dressed in head-to-toe fur and leather. Their faces were smeared in mud, fake blood, their hair was matted down and their smiles revealed fake, stained high quality hillbilly teeth.
Once we filed out of the shuttle alongside viking-clad men with dead animals hanging from their clothing, we spotted our first parade float getting ready for the event. Confederate flags and Route 66 plaques hung from the sides of a tractor as a band dressed as soldiers played a live Katy Perry rendition. I assumed this was the float to represent America…close, guys. Very close.
There were so many adults and children dressed in the broadest variety of costumes and masks. Our senses went into overload as we smelled the tastiest aromas coming from the street vendors, admired our first real glance at a half-timbered, medieval town equipped with towers and a fortified wall, and felt the icy February wind whip through our ill-equipped “fresh from San Diego” winter gear. We followed the crowds and arranged ourselves along the sidelines to wait for the parade to begin. As we waiting, two young boys were wheeling a steaming metal cart around selling beer and gluhwein mit schuss which literally means “glow wine with shot”. This batch included Rum and was our very first delicious introduction to a drink that we would soon realize is a staple at all winter events and festivals. We ordered zwei großen (two large) cups and snuggled along the masses to watch one of the oddest parades I have ever seen.
The parade was on a Sunday afternoon and lasted about two hours. The parade only covered a few blocks of small cobbled streets, but it was large in content and in the amount of participants. Unlike the states, the parade participants interact with the crowd, and sometimes forcefully. I was kissed, had my hat yanked, hair pulled, hugged by a person in a giant bear costume, got smacked on the side by a pig stomach, was spooked from behind by a masked bandit, and had someone paint my face with the German flag. That was nothing. The pretty young ladies got the worst of it.
I watched in pure American shock as young girls were being dragged into the street from the side lines (both by hands and lassoes), carried down a few meters and then dropped back off into the crowed after being marked with red paint. One of my favorite childhood cartoons was the Smurfs, but the Smurfs at this parade weren’t little or cute. They also grabbed and dragged young ladies out into the show with them, only they used blue paint and stamps on the poor girls’ foreheads. We witnessed a girl being thrown into a float designed as a jail guarded by men in monkey suits, watched as others were tossed into a giant, rotating vat of hay (and when trying to escape, were pushed back inside), then saw a few little boys get picked up, hoisted on monsters’ shoulders, and carted down the parade route.
Similar to Carnival and Mardi Gras, the parade participants threw candy, mini bottles of Schnapps, and small trinkets out to the crowds. The masked participants creepily approached the kids on the sidelines with satchels full of candy and if the kids didn’t cry, they got a handful of candy. I ended up with a purse full of Schnapps and Gummy Bears (Gummibären).
A few other notable things we witnessed that I don’t think would ever be acceptable in America were: Creepy monsters in chains being dragged down the street, parade members using a REAL catapult to shoot candy and liquor bottles forcefully into the crowd, giant masked men with whips swinging them around and cracking them on the pavement so that sparks flew everywhere, people wearing REAL fur outfits while carrying animal carcasses, people hitting other people with inflated pig bladders. The floats got wilder and wilder and many had mechanical devices that spun people around quickly and high in the air.
This was an intense welcome to our new home in Germany, of which I couldn’t have imagined, and I loved every minute of it. Now, I may have described this as quite aggressive and on some levels abusive, however, everyone (including the abducted girls…eventually) was laughing, cheering, and collectively screaming “AHA!!!” back at each other. It was one of the jolliest, most festive, yet creepiest, and weirdest parades I have ever seen.