Thursday, February 12, 2015

Schmotziger Donnerstag, or Dirty Thursday

I wrote the following post last year, but I think it's appropriate to resurrect it for today with a few minor updates and new pictures.

Today is Schmotziger Donnerstag ("Dirty Thursday") in Swabia. This day is similar to "Fat Tuesday", which some Catholics in Wisconsin celebrate the day before Ash Wednesday. Even at my former (Catholic!) school in Wisconsin we teachers organized a "Fat Tuesday" luncheon, a potluck of sorts, so we could pig out before settling in to the guilt and penitence of Lent. We had that in the staff room during the lunch period, and then we went back to our classrooms to finish the day.

Here in the Catholic communities of Swabia, the lead-in to Lent is quite different. It starts in earnest today. The Narrenzünfte (fools' guilds) put on their costumes, take over the towns, ceremoniously take the key from the Bürgermeister (who cheerfully gives it up because he has no other reasonable choice), set the school children loose at noon, and wreak havoc in good fun. The town keys are humbly and sheepishly returned on Ash Wednesday by those who can still walk, as the local beverage store owners gleefully count their tills. It's like Black Friday for the venders of beer, wine, and liquor.

The Narrenzunftmeister has the key to the town

crazy witch-creature on the town hall

Our Bürgermeister says a few words imploring the Narren to be good

One of the three Fasnet costumes of our town consists of black skirts with black and yellow striped stockings. They are the witches. We also have a group of Blockstrecker who wear white costumes, black hats, and bells. The third group, which I hope to catch a good photo of next year, are the Wildschweine (wild boars). They have a special name, but I didn't catch what it is.  Each town has such groups that identify their allegiance, but there are other common costumes as well - witches, devils, and other scary figures intended to chase away the demons of winter, which was the origin of Fasching/Fasnet/Karnival, after all.

the masks are made of wood
This is one of the witches standing in the Hexenwagen (witch wagon).

Last year I was invited to the after-school reception for teachers at the school where I teach the Englisch-AG, so after giving the students time to disperse, I headed over there. The headmaster, a friend of mine, greeted me wearing Lederhosen and a felt hat and playing the accordion, his brother (also a teacher and a friend of mine) was dressed in overalls and funny glasses, and most of the other teachers were in costumes as well. It's a bit like Halloween in Wisconsin. The work was over for the day, so they had donuts (Fasnetsküchle , which are like Berliner but diamond-shaped and lacking the jelly filling), cookies, and Sekt (sparkling wine) spread out on the conference table. Back in Wisconsin, at least during my years at the school, we had to relocate from the school grounds to a nearby bar to toast the start of a break.  Not here!
Fasnetsküchle (Swabian for "little Fasching cakes")
These are homemade! Our wonderful neighbor just brought them over!

The group sang Swabian Fasnet songs as the headmaster accompanied with his accordion, danced or clapped along, and generally just had fun. They then brought out a contraption that made me a little nervous at first - but all it was was a mini-catapult that they loaded up with a Schokoküssle (large chocolate-covered marshmallow). You had to throw a ball at one part of the machine, and if you hit the right spot, the Schokoküssle was flung at you to catch. Each of us had a go, and most of us successfully caught the Schokoküssle (and then had to eat it).

My teacher-friend explained to me that Fasnet (called Fastnacht, Fasching, or Karnival in other parts of Germany and Mardi Gras in N'Orleans) is and has traditionally been mainly a Catholic thing. In traditionally Catholic towns like Bildechingen, Eutingen, Horb, Rottenburg, etc., Fasnet is very popular, and you're kind of the odd-one-out if you're not in costume. In Protestant communities like Mühlen (3 km from Bildechingen), Tübingen, and Freudenstadt, business goes on as usual. In Horb if you're not into all the shenanigans of Fasnet, you might want to pack up and get the heck out of Dodge until Ash Wednesday. If you live in Freudenstadt and want to party, you pack up and settle someplace more Catholic and fun for a few days.

As if on cue to illustrate his point, a man came in with a delivery of something and briefly said hello as we were singing, dancing, and toasting with Sekt. As he was leaving my friend called enthusiastically with a twinkle in his eye, "Schöne Fasnetszeit!" ("Have a nice Fasching-holiday!") The man replied, "Nein, nein. Ich bin aus Freudenstadt. Zum Lachen gehen wir in den Keller." ("No, no. I'm from Freudenstadt. We go into the cellar to laugh.")  The point being, if that wasn't clear, that when Protestants have fun around here, they do it in the basement so no one can see or hear them behaving so shamefully.

Believe it or not, another person showed up during a song when we were all swaying side to side in unison, and stood for a moment in the doorway. She was wearing bright green shiny pants, so I thought she was a teacher and that was her costume. We stopped the song and the swaying and the headmaster gave her a "'S'up?" look. She said "I'm here from the school in Dornstetten (my friend whispered to me that that's another Protestant town), and I'm supposed to pick up [something I didn't understand]."  My friend offered her a Fasnetsküchle while the headmaster went to look for the thing she was supposed to pick up. He came back with it, and the woman pointed to her pants and said, "Well, I'm somewhat dressed up..." The headmaster replied, "Yeah, that's close enough for Dornstetten." He serenaded her with the accordian as she left to return to her boring little Protestant village, where the schools are still in session...

In the interest of accuracy, I wasn't really correct when I said that the lead-in to Lent starts today. It actually started in Swabia on Jan. 6, with the 12th day of Christmas. Every year right after the local children go around and write the Epiphany blessing on everyone's doors, the villagers get ready to party. There are mask-dusting-off gatherings, anniversary celebrations for various Narrenzünfte, a parade now and then, Fasching-themed parties, dance shows, and so on from January 6th to Faschingsdienstag ("Fat Tuesday"). But the heavy stuff (including, for some, the heavy drinking) begins today.

One of the things that fascinates me here is that nearly everything from the local customs, the architecture of buildings, the habits, the rules, and the fun-and-games have a rich history. One way to look at Fasnet is to see a bunch of drunk costumed fools running around causing traffic chaos, a mess, and a nuisance. But I'm learning there's much more to it than that. It's not really my thing (I grew up Protesant, after all), but I am starting to see why it is fun for others. I can't get excited about drinking and partying, but I can get into anything where there is something to learn about local traditions.

Happy Dirty Thursday!  Bleibt sauber!  ("Stay clean"!)

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