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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
Germany: Black Forest Fasching
by Marcy Jarvis
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Well, it's Fasching time again - Southwestern Germany's peculiar mix of Catholic Carnival and ancient pagan Rites of Spring all rolled into one. Where we live, in the deepest, darkest part of Germany - the Black Forest - it goes on for the whole week leading up to Lent (falling some time at the end of February, beginning of March, depending on the church calendar for that year). Revelers adorn themselves with elaborately wood-carved masks, which are passed down from generation to generation, and are transformed into witches and devils, forest trolls and swamp ghosts, who will take to the streets to "sweep" winter away, shouting, Naree! Naro!

Alte Hexe - Horb, Germany            Photo: Marcy Jarvis

     First stop? The Hexen Tanz (Witch's Dance), held in the town of Sulz each year, on Shmutzigen Donnerstag ("Dirty Thursday" - the last Thursday before Lent). Here you can kick off the week's festivities by the light of the moon as witches fly down out of the mountains on broomstick and into the waiting throngs in the market place. Next, the Narren (fools) bound in with bells on, brandishing sticks piled high with soft pretzels for the Brezelsegen (the blessing of the pretzels). If they like the looks of you, you may get one to eat.
     On Fasching Sunday, head for the historic town of Rottweil (where Rottweiler dogs originated) to see the Narrenzunft (Fool's Guild) file past dressed in the town's colors of black and yellow, jumping in rhythm and dusting people off with feather dusters to wake them from their winter's hibernation, all the while making this eerie laughing sound, Hu! Hu! Hu!" which is, at once, both funny and spooky.
     Feel free to dress for the occasion, if you're brave enough to take what they'll dish out. The first year I went, I wore a coonskin cap, which the fools enjoyed knocking off with their dusters, as well as a papier-mache Japanese hyottoko mask. This mask, I should explain, is actually the male half of a couple's set; my husband's father, who lives in Japan, had sent it at New Years. It features bulging eyeballs and a jutting prosthetic chin-like mouth with two red dots painted on it where lips should be. This "fire blowing mouth" is supposed to be a symbol of humor and good luck in Japan, but looks remarkably like one of these Narren masks. Let's just say I got more attention than I bargained for.

 Marcy Jarvis in Japanese Mask with daughter Katchen as kleine Hexe
                          Rottweil, Germany
Photo: Nat Jarvis

     By the time it is over, you will have the feeling that the same people have all just been going around the block and reappearing again through the Schwarzes Tur, the fabled "Black Gate" of the city. That's okay, just make your way to the nearest Konditorei for kaffee und kuchen - Black Forest Cake, anyone? Or better yet, try Fastnet-Chüechlie, the diamond shaped fried dough, coated in sugar, which are only made at this time of year. Or perhaps a pot of Gulasch will hit the spot. Whatever your pleasure, fortify yourself, because come nightfall, more than 3000 people, many of them wearing traditional blue Bauernkittel (Farmer's smocks) this time around, will make their way through the town in a torchlight procession.
     On Rosen Monntag, ("Rose Monday" - the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday) make your way up to the town of Horb for their big parade. Here, the children dress up and come equipped with sacks, because witches, devils and castle dwarves will be along to throw candy -

          Castle Dwarves - Horb, Germany      Photo: Marcy Jarvis

     it's the closest thing we have to an American Halloween but more so. The witches circle hapless onlookers and hoist them high on a teepee of gnarly brooms, then climb on top of each other to form a pyramid that rises up to a height of five witches off the ground. They terrorize young and old by taking off spectator's boots and running away with them. Even those who opt to watch from a higher vantage point aren't safe; the witches will scale the walls of the stucco and half timbered Fachwerk houses that line these streets to menace the onlookers in the open windows, sometimes climbing into people's living rooms!

          Tannenzapfengeister - Horb, Germany      Photo: Marcy Jarvis

(Pine cone ghosts), fetchingly clothed in hand-stitched costumes constructed of overlaid shingles of felt, will switch you with their branches, alternately used as brooms, as they pass by. Pig men work the crowds, shaking pig bladder balloons that REALLY stink, reminiscent of the way lepers and plague victims once announced their arrival in these medieval villages. Billy goat men spring through the streets grabbing the women: spanking them, carrying them off, sometimes forcing them to drink "goat sperm," (which as it turns out, is really just schnapps) and even rolling them around on the ground in mock rape - ancient pagan fertility rites in action. (The prettiest ones are really in for it.)

           Ziegemänner - Horb, Germany           Photo: Marcy Jarvis

     Catholics in this region long ago incorporated such pagan ideas in order to spice up their pre-Lenten festivities and win converts. If it all sounds a bit threatening, it is. Yet it's also hilariously exhilarating and fun, once you get into the spirit of it. When one towering devil tried to grab my five-year-old last year, she gamely hid behind me and held fast. He resorted to making off with her bag of candy, but returned it shortly. Even my less than enthusiastic teenaged son, who hadn't wanted to come, had to laugh when a snaggle-toothed hag in raggedy skirts deviled him, tying his shoelaces together in a hopeless snarl when she didn't succeed in dragging him away.
           Böse Hexe - Horb, Germany           Photo: Marcy Jarvis

     Afterwards, follow the Folterknechts (torturers), who wander the town in bands, demonstrating their whipping techniques, up to the ancient torture tower at the top of the hill. It's only open to the public this one day each year. You can climb the Turm and peek into the private club on its top floor, listen to their drinking songs.
     If gentility is what you crave, return to Rottweil for a no less intriguing experience on Faschingsdienstag, also knows as Fastnachts, (Shrove Tuesday) when the aristocratic Federhannes (feathered johns) and Franzenkleider (fringed ladies) make their haughty appearance. Afterwards, when everyone pushes the heavy wooden masks back onto the tops of their heads, they create a colorful sea of amusing double-faced characters.
     In the pre-dawn hours of Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday), Rottweilers are still going strong and lining up for the amazing Narrensprung (Fool's jump). It's a grand finale of jesters leaping through the air and ringing their bells. They must train all year long to be ready for this - it could be its own Olympic event.
     Throughout the region, communities hold Fasching celebrations of one stripe or another, although, town to town, the traditions can differ greatly. Sample a few and you will see how the geography of the Black Forest fostered unique cultural variations in villages just a few kilometers apart.
     The three towns mentioned here can be found to the southwest of Stuttgart, Germany, just off Autobahn 81.

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