Spring is well on its way. I have been marking the change of the seasons with walks out in the weak sunshine, listening to the birds’ excited chatter and smiling every time I see a new bulb clawing its way through earth recently released from Winters’ iron clasp. My modest celebrations of the coming of Spring are nothing though to those we observed in Switzerland last month.
Our travels took us to Einsiedeln, near Zürich. Einsideln is a small town famous for its abbey and Benedictine monastery dedicated to local hermit St. Meinrad. For most of the year Einsiedeln is a pretty, clean and typically Swiss town and the gateway to some fantastic scenery and outdoor recreation opportunities. During one week in February every year though the whole town descends into the noisy chaos of carnival. The costumes are impressive, the partying goes on into the small hours and the streets are littered with confetti. This is Fasnacht – the time of parades and masked balls, of playing jokes and letting your hair down, of chasing away the winter and the locals throw themselves into it with surprisingly un-Swiss abandon.
Fasnacht has a long history in Switzerland and is not confined to Einsiedeln or its immediate region. The largest, best known celebrations are those of Basel and Lucerne with ornate costumes, huge floats and similarly large-scaled parties and they are well known to international visitors. Other regions are famous for certain customs, such as Liestal, which is renowned for its fiery Chienbase parade. Burning bundles of pinewood are taken through the streets, some made into bonfires drawn on large carts and people flock from all over Switzerland and beyond to watch. Most of the main Fasnacht celebrations take place in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and each separate festival has its own origins made up varying degrees of religious, cultural and historical elements. They all share a common theme though – the celebration of the end of winter which sees its roots going back to pagan times.
In Catholic Einsiedeln the Fasnacht preparations start back as early as the 6th January and are very much a local affair. This day marks the Coming of the Kings and the end of the Christmas period is marked in a unique way. Just before dawn Einsiedeln and its surrounding villages ring out eerily with the sound of cowbells as local men parade in time through the streets, huge cow bells strapped to their backs. In the following weeks the preparations for the main Fasnacht events gain momentum. Local community groups begin their carnival preparations and there are masked balls, the main one of which offers a substantial monetary prize for the best mask.
We arrived just as the highlights of the Fasnacht period were about to kick off. The big parades are all scheduled in the last week before Ash Wednesday and we took Roo to the childrens’ parade on ‘Dirty Thursday’ for her first taste of a carnival. The snowy streets were lined with costumed children and adults, with many of the latter already looking a little merry!
Roo watched in awe as the childrens’ carnival parade began in a cacophonous clanging of cow bells. Group after group of local children paraded by dressed up as everything from fish to giant cakes, throwing confetti and giving out sweets to the children in the crowd. Every kindergarten or village had sent a group of children to take part and each one had chosen a theme. The costumes, all hand made, were simple but obviously labours of love. Even the babies had their own decorated prams!
As the afternoon went on, Roo overcame her initial wide-eyed wonder at the spectacle and broke into broad smiles as her pockets filled to bursting point with sweets brought to her by the generous carnival goers. As we traipsed off at the end of the parade it was obvious that for many of the adults, the party had only just begun. The streets rang with the sound of music played from makeshift stereos whilst groups of friends and neighbours laughed and greeted each other in the warm spring sunshine. Back home, local children arrived dressed in costume, clutching confetti and pulling a wagon of home-made goodies. After reciting rhyme they offered their home-baked biscuits and sweets in exchange for funds for their local carnival group in a tradition that reminded me of Halloween ‘trick-or-treating’.
Over the weekend each village holds their own local parties and parades and then a few days later on Gudelsmontag or ‘Rose Monday’ the main events in Einsiedeln kick off. At 4am the people of Einsiedeln are once more woken up to the sound of giant cowbells ringing through the dawn as those carrying them parade through the darkened streets. There is an informal costumed procession in the morning up to Einsideln’s abbey, led by figures dressed as devils and which spectators can join on the way to church. Its history back to the Atonement Fair of centuries past.
The largest Fasnacht parade is in the afternoon with a huge turn-out. We had to park on the outskirts of Einsiedeln and walked in with an ever-swelling crowd of excited carnival goers. The sides of the streets were crowded with spectators, all jostling for a place in the sun away from the icy chill of the shade. Having picked our spot we waited, listening to the waft of cow bells and discordant brass instruments as the groups of revellers assembled.
Finally the parade began. The cowbells were louder than ever – so loud that you felt them rather than heard them. Their adult bearers lunged from side to side in an awkward synchronized rhythm, their faces covered by strange masks. The sound of the cowbells is said to scare away the evil winter spirits and if any should still be lurking in the shadows, what follows after is sure to see them off. For next came groups dressed in traditional horned masks, dragging chains around their waists and some carrying pitchforks. A couple of them turned their grotesque faces to the spectators and lurched at them with their pitchforks raised. The devil costumes are just one of the traditional types of costume that go back a long way through the centuries with traditions and history attached to them far to intricate to cover in this post. If your German is good though, you can read in depth about them all here. It’s a good job we had warned Roo about the masks – it’s enough to give the unprepared nightmares for months!
Behind the bedeviled paraders came the first of the Guggenmusic bands – a motley crew of marching, costumed musicians playing their loud, discordant mainly brass instruments. Roo clung to my hand and Baby Beth was rudely awakened from her nap. The babies of local parents I noticed were all sporting ear-defenders! The tunes the Guggenmusic bands played were mainly recognisable pop songs. The tradition though is to play them with huge rhythm but in purposefully odd keys or with discordant harmonies. The deafening and discordant result makes for a wild, primitive sound, designed equally to make the evil spirits of winter flee and to whip up the carnival goers into a frenzy of dancing and gleeful abandon.
Interspersed amongst the more traditional costumes, cowbells and marching bands came more modern floats and paraders. Roo loved the men on Mario carts who did wheelies in the street. One of them picked up a baby for a ride then seemed at a loss as to what to do with it when he had to use both hands to steer his car. This pretty much summed up the relaxed attitude to health and safety at the Fasnacht parade. Back in the UK there would have likely been fencing between floats and spectators, or at the very least lots of marshals to keep people back. As it was, we watched amazed as a float made up like a jungle went by with ropes hanging off the side of it from which small children dressed as monkeys and without any kind of safety equipment swung freely, grinning from ear to ear. From the top of a huge fire-engine a fireman flew out over the crowds on a rope whilst his colleagues heroically rescued a paper cat from a tree, also balanced on top of the truck and a huge London tour bus complete with over-sized-camera clutching sightseers (no doubt mocking us humble tourists) took several goes to get round a street corner with a large chunk of the crowd having to relocate to keep out its path!
Another key part of the Fasnacht celebrations is playing tricks. Children in the crowd clutched water pistols and confetti to throw at the scarier looking masked paraders, often being rewarded with confetti and sweets thrown back in equal measure. One float from the local shooting club was full of men dressed as wolves who ran off their float to kidnap the more attractive young ladies from the crowd who were then dragged giggling back up to the float and made to drink shots of alcohol before being released. Others carried off people from the crowd to dunk them in a bath of paper confetti. Fortunately for us, those with babies and small children seemed to be off-limits!
Poking fun at local and political events and figures is another big theme and provided some of the most entertaining floats. Nurses came past dressed in face masks and clutching medication for ‘Noro’ – a dig no doubt at a local hospital which suffered recently from a serous outbreak of Norovirus on its wards. One group (my favourite) took the chance to mock the roadworks which have crippled Einsiedeln’s commuter traffic over recent months. Their float started with an unkempt stop-go man, fag in hand and a driver-less roadworks lorry. As the lorry came past us, the silhouettes of dancing and lager swigging road-workers were visible in the back. Then the back half of the lorry raised up and unceremoniously tipped out the partying workers onto the street where they slouched about over their tools looking disgruntled and hungover. Even without the local context it made me laugh – frustration at indefinite roadworks is universal it seems.
Despite all the noise and costumes, the temperature plummeted as the sun slipped low in the winter sky. After two hours it was time for us to get two chilly children indoors for hot chocolate and to enjoy their spoils of sweets. The Fasnacht parade was still in full flow as we left and for many the party was only just beginning. Large bandstands had been set up outside the abbey, restaurants were open and the whole town was buzzing with the promise of dancing in the streets until dawn.
Shrove Tuesday and the culmination of Einsideln’s Fasnacht celebrations arrived and whilst many are still sleeping off the night before one of the stranger customs takes place in Einsiedeln- the brotauswerfen or ‘bread throwing’. This is when children and ‘big children’ crowd round large stages as kilos of bread rolls are thrown own into the crowds by costumed men – a custom thought to have arisen from the giving of alms to the poor by the town’s nobility in years gone by. Later on in the evening a huge effigy of a demonic figure is paraded through the streets by costumed men and finally burned in the square outside Einsiedeln abbey in the Pagatverbrennen. At midnight and the start of Ash Wednesday, the abbey bells ring out to signal the start of Lent. This is the official end of Fasnacht and the signal for revellers to head home, for normality to resume and the sober, reflective time of Lent to begin.
Fasnacht in Einsiedeln is very much a local festival for local people. This makes it a wonderful experience for tourists who want to immerse themselves in local culture and escape the international crowds but it can make it quite challenging to understand what is going on . I’m fairly sure as a non-resident I missed out on a lot of the in-jokes and satirical references in the Fasnacht parade floats iand t took a lot of research to glean the little history of the event shared in this post. Even with all the reading and research in the world, the full history and nuances of Einsiedeln ‘s Fasnacht traditions are likely to pass by those who have not grown up in the area. Each community group of Einsiedeln has its own customs and part to play, reminding me of the Spanish penas in festivals of northern Spain wearing their coloured neckerchiefs as badges of belonging. Membership of the main Fasnacht groups, the wearers of the most traditional costumes and ringers of the cow bells is still an all-male affair, with the women supporting as seamstresses and general helpers. Suggested reform of this is firmly frowned upon as a sure sign of ‘not understanding’ the traditions. When I asked the Einsiedeln tourist board where I could learn more about their Fasnacht traditions they replied in one sentence – ‘unfortunately we do not have any information in English on our fasnacht-tradition – sorry.’.
Visitors are welcome to observe and join in the carnival and we were made to feel very welcome. In this close, conservative and traditional community however the true meaning and secrets of Fasnacht remain fiercely guarded from ‘outsiders’. Perhaps not quite well enough though. Back in the UK our three year-old has taken to parading around the kitchen and garden, toy cowbell clutched on her back, warding off the winter spirits much to the bemusement of friends and neighbours. Judging by today’s warm sunshine and blue skies she has got it sussed out…