Not many people have heard of Swiss Carnival or what is locally known as Fasnacht. Personally, I was only familiar with the Mardi Gras of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the streets get packed with tourists to watch a parade of extravagant floats with beautiful women covered in flamboyant colors and feathers, dancing and singing and waving, showing off their scantily clad perfectly shaped bodies. It was hard to imagine the diplomatic Swiss engaging in this same behavior, celebrating Carnival in what would otherwise be winter temperatures, nonetheless!
Having a husband who grew up going to Fasnacht in Luzern annually as a child, I received my orientation on Fasnacht etiquette quite matter-of-factly. And well, there are floats, and dancing and waving, but there’s definitely less feathers and bikinis. So what is it then? Here’s a short primer.
What is Fasnacht?
Officially a Christian celebration dating back to centuries ago, Fasnacht derives its name from “das Fasten” meaning “the fasting period” referring to the six weeks of preparation for Easter Sunday, known as Lent. Traditionally, a week before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, many Swiss cities celebrate Fasnacht as a “last chance” to eat and be merry before the fasting weeks that follow. Less about flaunting your looks, it’s more about flaunting your creativity. So, many come masked in their own creations.
Where to go for Fasnacht?
Of course this is up for debate. If you’re Swiss, you usually celebrate in your own town (granted that your town celebrates it), some may even swear off of celebrating in other regions other than their own. But there are two very popular Carnivals in the country held in the cities of Luzern and Basel which receive 15,000-20,000 people for every day of the festivities.
Luzern, being a Catholic Canton (Swiss semi-sovereign state or district) observes the Fasnacht celebrations according to the liturgical calendar and always holds Fasnacht from Thursday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Basel in comparison celebrates a week after Ash Wednesday. It’s widely believed that this difference in celebration, dates back to the Protestant Reformation of Switzerland in the 16th Century, when Basel, among a handful of other Cantons became Protestant.
Local newspapers constantly debate on who has the best Fasnacht, and though both, in my experience, have their own unique traditions and styles that I, as a non-Swiss Fasnacht-fan can happily appreciate, my husband, like the rest of Luzerners, would swear that the Luzern Fasnacht is better- less formal, less militärisch, and more fun than the Basler Fasnacht. And because we do live in the Canton of Luzern, and have celebrated and joined the Luzerner Fasnacht a few times over, I’ll continue on talking about the (better) Fasnacht of Luzern.
Who goes to Fasnacht?
Everyone is welcome to fasnacht of course. In recent years, it has become a kind of tourist attraction, which for a time, alarmed local Fasnacht groups, fearing that the essence of Fasnacht would be lost to mass tourism. In the meantime, visitors have also learned that at the Luzerner Fasnacht, it’s almost a crime to come without a costume. Here any idea is welcome from anyone and everyone, there is no real difference between performer and spectator. Families and small groups of friends can just show up with their costume creations and walk the streets to be observed, and to observe others as well.
What to wear for Fasnacht?
Whatever you do, do not wear normal clothes for Fasnacht. There is a saying: “only tourists don’t dress up for Fasnacht.” If you don’t have a costume, you might as well stay at home and watch the official parade on your TV.
So…what exactly happens during Fasnacht?
That’s technically hard to explain. For many, it is the one time in the year when you can refer to everyone on the street in the informal you form of “du” instead of “Sie”. There is a general air of parody and horseplay, especially when everyone is dressed as something or someone else, being in character and owning the role is somewhat expected. So for a change, people can let their hair down, and engage in as much nonsense as they need, for the one week a year of Fasnacht.
Tagwach or the opening of Fasnacht starts at 5am on Thursday morning. This day is referred to “Schmudo” or “Schmutzige Donnerstag” a literal translation meaning “Dirty Thursday”, derived from the word “Schmutz” which in Swiss German connotes “Fat” its origins referring to the fatty sausages that farmers must have adequate stores of for the winter months. These sausages along with many other traditional Fasnacht pastries (Zigerkrapfen, Schenkeli and Fasnachtschüechli) are served during this time to symbolize the need for calorie-rich meals before the 40 days of fasting that would follow.
At 5am in Luzern’s center, masked citizens gather in anticipation of the big bang to commence Fasnacht. As its name connotes, Tagwach is really like a military wake up call, with a sudden bang and confetti bombs exploding in the air, the masked brass and percussion marching bands or Guggenmusik (pronounced gooken-moo-zeek) start to play and walk through the crowded old town with onlookers following, standing aside, or dancing to the beating of the drums. In the afternoon of Thursday, the official parade takes place on the main road of the city, where the bands play, followed by their official floats, along with numerous other groups, sometimes official sometimes rogue. The Guggenmusik usually play numerous renditions of current pop songs of the season or the past year, deviating less from the usual military marches of traditional marching bands. The float creations are also reflective of pop culture, ranging from popular movie series, famous characters, or even current political issues.
After the official opening at 5am, and before and after the afternoon parade, with about 30 different Guggenmusik groups and another 15,000 visitors roaming the old town at any time in any path and order they choose, the old town is in a continous state of chaos until early hours of Friday.
The rest of Friday is rather quiet throughout the day, though street bars and tents are still open to welcome…the tourists who missed the Thursday opening. Saturday can also see filled streets, but less Guggenmusik, as many of the groups return to their home suburb attending local parties or performing for their sponsors. Sundays are usually reserved for Fasnacht celebrations in the more smaller towns outside of the city. Our town, for example always holds it Fasnacht parade in the afternoon of Sunday, and the town’s local Guggenmusik along with the neighbouring towns also parttake in the parade.
Last two days
Monday is then another official opening, another Tagwach, a little later than 5am, this time at 6am, but still rather similar to the Thursday opening, as a kind of continuation after the weekend of rest. And similar to Thursday, with an official parade once again in the afternoon, the chaos continues throughout the day, rain or shine, until the early hours of the following day.
Tuesday, the last day of Fasnacht, is known as Kinderfasnacht, and welcomes families dressed in their own themes or Sujet, showing off their creations of floats and costumes. Because only five Guggenmusik groups accompany the many families that take part in the afternoon parade, the parade tours through the streets of the old town keeping to the small stoned streets, giving a more cozy and personal feel to the parade. This is naturally our favorite day, as it’s a delight to come as a family and see other families with their costumes as well.
Later at 7:30pm in the evening, as a closing celebration, the last parade known as Monster Corso takes place on the main bridgeroad by the lake, hosting about eighty total Guggenmusik groups. They march and play one after the other, giving their last performance to all spectators, for the official end of the year’s Fasnacht. And at around 10pm, the crowd starts to trickle away, as people make their way home, content with all the eating and dancing and celebrations in the past week, ready to sleep and wake up to return to the diplomatic Swiss life of six days ago.
This year we came to Fasnacht as a the Cardboard Knights: Baby-King cozy in the cardboard castle, Boy-Kingsguard sporting black and red feathers on his cardboard helmet, ready with his cardboard sword, and the Hedgeknights, armed with cardboard axes.