Fasching – Carnival in the Alps

Fasching parade in Allgäu

Fasching parade in Allgäu

Next Tuesday, folk living in some areas of this our planet are going to celebrate what is known as Carnival. May that be in Rio de Janeiro, in Venice, New Orleans, or in the German city of Mainz, people will dress up, organize processions, dance, sing, and feast.

We do that in the Alps, too, and, although there are Pagan roots shining through loud and clear, I wonder why this happens so close to Imbolc, and why it is not part of the Pagan Wheel of the Year. Or is it, maybe?

As we have to do so often, we need to start with how Christianity changed the date of Carnival and the following festival, Easter, which replaced the Spring Equinox. We know that many pagan traditions made their way into Christianity, and many folk customs were kept by more or less adapting them to the new faith. In this case, it is the way the date of Easter is computed that gives us a first lead. Interestingly, the Church still relies on the old ways here by using Sun and Moon to figure out Easter Sunday. That holiday always falls on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox.

Now we need to look at the time before Easter, lent, the forty days long fasting period leading up to Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of lent, is therefore not reckoned on a specific date, but by counting backwards forty days from Easter Sunday. For us pagans – druids, magi, witches, shamans and whatnot –  however, the day before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is the more interesting day.

Before there was Christianity, however, the Celts celebrated the coming of spring on a fixed day in the solar cycle, at the Spring Equinox. That festival didn’t fluctuate with the Moon’s cycle as the Christian Easter does. It is, however, interesting, that the Church decided on a forty day time period for lent. It’s interesting, because forty days is roughly the time between a Sun and a Moon festival. So, that time span was not new for the people of old, and they could adapt this Church rule easily.

Going back forty days from the Spring Equinox – instead of Easter – brings us to February 8th, 9th, or 10th, depending on the actual date of the equinox and whether it is a leap year. That means that the Pre-Christian carnival, however that may have looked like, was always celebrated right after Imbolc, the light-festival.

This is important for us, because it could very well be that Carnival may have been, originally, part of what the Celts in the Alps celebrated as Imbolc. This would make a lot of sense, particularly when we consider that Imbolc is about the first signs of the change of season, the increase of light and warmth, and…when considering what the German words for Carnival mean.

One word we most often use in Upper German, which is spoken in the Alpine region, is Fasching. It describes the whole carnival season. Farther north into Germany, they also use a related word, Fas(t)nacht, for the night before Ash Wednesday. In looking at the etymology of these terms, we could be fooled easily, for our word for “fasting” in German is fasten. Doesn’t it seem like that particularly Fastnacht has something to do with fasten, especially since a period of fasting commences the next day? However, according to anthropologist Wolf-Dieter Storl, neither Fastnacht nor Fasching have anything to do with fasting.

The two words come more likely from the Old High German VASELEN, which means “making fertile,” mostly in the sense of making soil fertile. So, when we do our VASELEN in early February, when the days grow visibly longer and the warmth of the sun can be felt already, my ancestors began the farming year with preparing Mother Earth to become fertile once more. This is why I would view Fasching as a part of Imbolc

It is, in essence, the wild hustling and bustling – also and particularly in a sexual sense – during Fasching, which is thought to make the soil fertile, awaken the Goddess from her wintery sleep. The awakening is especially amplified by dancing – i.e. rhythmically stomping the ground. VASELEN thus causes the seed, which spent the cold months in the warm womb of the Goddess, to germinate. We do that masked because this was a time when the chasms between classes vanished, and because of the sexual nature of Fasching, of which I also have fond memories. Because VASELEN, awakening fertility, is also something the people need to do to themselves. Feasting regenerates our reproductive organs, and drinking, especially alcoholic beverages, back then possibly even enhanced with psychotropic plants, inhibits the usually tighter moral filters.

So, come next Monday eve and Tuesday, VASELE away, stomp, dance, feast and have fun…if you know what I’m sayin’

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