Fasnacht is nearly upon us, and by now you must have noticed the masks and costumes filling the shop windows and the beat of Guggenmusic coming over the sound system of most shops, Luzern’s fifth season is here.
There are many famous carnivals around the world, including Basel. But none come anywhere near the calculated chaos and grittiness of Luzern’s Fasnacht.
Based on the dates for the Catholic Mardi-Gras, Fasnacht is celebrated during three days, Schmützig Donnstig (Dirty Thursday), Güdis Montag and Güdis Dienstag (Fat Monday and Tuesday), the last two day usually blurring into one extra long day. This celebration is the last big party before the 40 days of Lent and is meant to be as loud and scary as possible in order to frighten Winter away.
The celebrations begin on the Thursday morning (this year on February 24th) at 5 a.m. when the Fritschi Father, the carnival father and his wife launch the party with a big bang (literally), confetti and lots of oranges thrown into the crowd; presumably to offer everyone plenty of vitamin C to survive the rest of the festivities.
In the 15th century the Safran Guild (Zunft Zum Safran) was appointed to organise Fasnacht and keep the Fritschi customs alive, other guilds have since joined to help. Every year the Safran Guild elects a new President who also represents the Fritschi Father and is considered the most important Luzerner by the locals. You recognise the guilds as their members are parading on horses, or in coaches and throwing oranges into the crowd during the parades.
The Guggenmusic bands are the heart of Fasnacht. Made of, usually, talented musicians who practice all year round, they pick a theme, make magnificently scary costumes and floats and spend the whole duration of Fasnacht playing their socks off, just ever so slightly out of tune. They usually take turns performing in the allocated spots all over town and you will undoubtedly encounter them fraying their way through the crowds, or having a well deserved drink in a café or restaurant before donning their heavy head gear and going out to play again.
There are parades planned on each day. If you are going to watch one a word of advice, make sure your feet are extra warm, you will end up standing outdoors watching over 40 floats go by, each with its own allocated Guggermusic band. Also be sure to bring a goodie bag as sweets, chocolates and fruits may very well fly your way!
The official parades are on Thursday and Monday afternoons. They begin close to the Hofkirche and stop at Bundesplatzt. They are also shown live on television on channel SF1.
Tuesday afternoon at 14:30 is the Chendermonschter parade. This is open to anyone and usually it is families or schools and clubs who parade. It is lots of fun and as long as you are dressed up and have some candy to throw into the crowd, then you can take part. Be sure to be at Mühleplatz up to an hour in advance if you want to be sure to start reasonably early. There are warm drinks and breads for all kids who take part in the parade afterwards.
Tuesday night is the Monstercorso, this is open to all groups. It is very large and impressive and lasts well over 2 hours.
For once if you want to blend in, you should dress up. The young adults usually go for something fairly basic resembling a long poncho made with rags, whilst more adventurous individuals might choose to wear something a bit more sophisticated. Wandering around the city offers plenty to see, but if you want a break and a bit of the action then head into a restaurant and wait for the action to come to you. Cabaret acts and smaller Guggenmusic bands will often drop in and sing/play for their drinks. The Wilden Mann is a particularly good address to get an eye and earful.
The more gentrified crowd may choose to go to one of the main hotels masked balls, this is also where you will find a lot of the guilds members.
Fasnacht in the region.
If you are wondering where all the bands have fled to on the Saturday and Sunday between the official Luzern Fasnacht dates, it’s probably to one of the parades in the area…
Each village pretty much has its own specific costume, the Krienser washer woman being one of the more recognisable. Don’t be surprised if you get grabbed by the neck or arm by one of the “ladies” and dragged along the parade before they decide to release you again. No point in resisting, these are burly gentlemen wearing the costumes.
Understanding the Luzerners at this time of the year.
Being married to a local I know that Fasnacht is like an irresistible force that takes over the majority of Luzerners’ lives during this time. You may find that a lot of the local places you usually go to for business are closed, the owner playing in a Guggenmusic Band. But be reassured this is organised chaos, there are garbage bins everywhere, public transport will work perfectly (they even put on extra trains and buses to get you to the Fasnacht launch) and come Ash Wednesday there will be hardly a confetti or inebriated Fasnachtler to be found anywhere. Luzern will then put on her robes again and dream of the next Fasnacht season which, by the way, begins on November 11th…
Here are some useful links:
The official Fasnacht website has all the events and dates for Fasnacht revelling
You will also find a brief history of Fasnacht here.