Tripping at Carnival: Lucerne’s Fasnacht Celebration

The following is a guest post by avid traveler and writer Laura Miller.

My friend Kinga, a Hungarian expatriate living in Lucerne, muses that the Swiss are as controlled and perfectionistic as they are because Switzerland “sits atop the contained energy of the Third World War." That energy of containment needs a valve, and Switzerland's carnival week is it: the ancient function of misrule.

Lucerne's Fasnacht (“fast-night") is six days of avalanching, explosive energy affectionately nicknamed “the fifth season." It's a time out of time, in which the usual Swiss standards of order are replaced by sodden confetti on the streets.

Aviation is a popular costume theme. So are furry animals for young adults. And Eskimos.

Although Fasnacht marks the start of Lent, it has pagan vestiges much more ancient. The aim of the festival is to scare away the cold winter in the form of Fritschi, an old man who is its personification. A northern-latitude Winter is tenacious in its grip, so Luzerners pull out all the stops: with masks, loud Guggenmusik, parades and “monster concerts", for a week's worth of surreal revelry and fun.

[caption id="attachment_10679" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Members of a Guggenband await their cue."][/caption]

Fasnacht begins at 5 a.m on Schmütziger Donnerstag (“Dirty Thursday") when Fritschi blows a giant horn to herald the festival's beginning. It's appropriate that Fasnacht begins with noise; everyone warned me ahead of time that it was going to be loud. It is. Guggenbands march through the streets of the Old Town in costume, trumpeting and drumming all the way, then station themselves in a square or side street, take off their masks and really get going. To experience Fasnacht to move along with the musicians: if you are stationary, music comes toward you, then fades away. If you're in motion, you walk from one sphere of syncopated noise into another. Sometimes the old music of a Guggenband will march right into high-modern house music throbbing out of the open doors of a club, then weave and interact with it like fingers interlacing, separate and drift apart.

[caption id="attachment_10680" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Luzerner masks are handmade papier-mâché, D.I.Y. of a quality that is surpassing, with a distinct aesthetic that is unconcerned with being slightly grotesque."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_10682" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="The bridges over the Reuss River are a place for the passing of souls."][/caption]

Here is an important pointer: you must wear a costume. You aren't forced to, but if you don't, you will feel it. People without costumes look like tourists, spectators, gawkers. To experience Luzerner Fasnacht, you wear the kleider. Walking the streets of the town at night, lamp-lit and floating with soft fog from the river, is like a dream.

One night, my group paused outside the window of a fine restaurant. Inside were diners, wearing regular clothes, eating off plates and with silver in the brightly-lit place in which nothing was going on. We gaped at them as though they were in another dimension. They were.

So when you hit the cobbled streets of the Old Town, fuel up on street food like pastries and doughnuts, and warm yourself with spiked drinks of the region, like Holdrio, a sangria-like wine drink, and coffee schnapps and tea schnapps to keep you going with a slight buzz. Immerse yourself in the fun and in Fasnacht's sense of timelessness and release. At 4 a.m. of the morning of Ash Wednesday, everything goes back to normal.

My re-entry to America, was in Hartford, Connecticut. As I rode the airport shuttle to my satellite parking lot, an older New England lady sitting next to me asked where I had been. I told her Switzerland, for Carnival.

[caption id="attachment_10683" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="“Carnival is a pageant without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival, everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act." ~ Mikhail Bakhtin, “Carnival and the Carnivalesque""][/caption]

“That's funny," she said. “The Swiss don't seem like the kind of people to have Carnival."

“No, they don't." I smiled. And that's the point.

Author Bio

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at elephantjournal, a writer at UMass Amherst, a travel correspondent for the Boston Globe, and has a feature forthcoming in Parabola. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck. [photo by: Jeff Frazier]

All photographs by Paul Pacitti,