In the US, this past Tuesday (March 8 ) was Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, also known as the last day before Lent starts in Catholicism (and a few other branches of Christianity). What it also concludes (usually, though not always) is the season of partying and parading known as Carnival, Fastnacht, Fasching, and variations of those terms (the starting point is sometime around the Winter solstice, though some places can be as early as November).
Various aspects of this season are going to be the topics of my posts the next few weeks, starting with the masks and costumes for today. Masks in general have a wide variety of specific meanings that is unique to their cultures, but the overall theme seems to be transformation and change. Given that this is the time of year when Winter is gradually turning into Summer, the use of the European masks during processions at this time makes sense, on top of other reasons given.
With regards to traditional Central and Eastern European winter costumes, there seems to be a similarity in their design (click pictures to view larger size):
Krampus/”Ugly” Perchten in Austria (There used to be a difference in the costume, but lately there has been overlap; now it’s mainly the time of year and roles that separate the two)
Kurents in Slovenia
Busójárás in Hungary
Kukeri in Bulgaria
And my favorite, the fox Schuttig costume from Germany:
Now, I don’t know about you, but none of this screams “Christianity” to me. Sure, there is the sense of getting as much fun out of the remaining days before Lent as one can, but the usual interpretations suggest a pre-Christian root.
As mentioned before, this part of the year starts in the winter for some places, and seems to have one peak of activity in early January; Austria’s Perchtenlaufen is a prime example of that. The other peak occurs around Ash Wednesday, usually the few days before it. Thinking in agrarian terms, which is what these festivities are thought to have developed in, this period of time is rather empty in terms of food production, and stored food is starting to dwindle away and probably starting to go bad. So what do people do? Scare off Winter and start spreading some fertility around.
Hence, the grotesque costumes. They both embody the spirits of Winter in plays that depict the battle between Winter and Summer, and act as live gargoyles that are supposed to terrify the real demons. One interesting twist on this exists with the Busos in Mohacs, Hungary; a legend that the costumes were used to scare off the invading Turks. They say that the doughnuts sometimes hung on the masks’ horns represent the heads of the Turks, though the validity of this legend is debatable.
The fertility aspect comes from the mostly male use of the costumes (though changing times have allowed women to partake in this) and how they often carry items to poke and whip (lightly) women they harass on the street. Birch rods, willow rods, gourds, and other phallic symbols (as well as literal replicas of penises) are used in this manner, and one could go so far as to say the wearing of horns (or predominance of horned animals like bulls and goats) supports this interpretation too. So many books and articles have been made about penis symbolism that I’m not going to delve into it much, but the sheer commonness of the connection does make tracing the origins harder to do. This could be something that popped up (no pun intended) on its own within the cultures, or influenced by people such as the Romans; it’s hard to tell. I can imagine that the anonymity offered by the masks allow the wearers to be unrestrained in their actions, further representing the seemingly chaotic transition from Winter to Summer. In Chicago at least, it could easily be warm and sunny one day, then snowing the next during March and April.
In addition to the demonic and zoomorphic costumes, there also exists more mundane ones depicting (or in some cases, exaggerating) every day life in traditional costumes, or stereotypes of foreign peoples and beings. These give a sense of reinforcing the status quo in the villages and maintaining what has worked for their survival thus far. Through this, the prosperity of previous years can continue, or bad years can be corrected by returning to the proper traditions. There is actually quite a bit of ritualistic behavior that goes into these activities and how the people act while wearing the masks, all of which needs to be done correctly in order to avoid bad luck for the town.
It’s one of my dreams to visit Europe and see at least one of these parades in action, if only to see these magnificent costumes up close. These are all hand made, each one a unique work of art and some of them even changed each year at that. I’ve never had a good hand with fabric and wood, so I admire those that create amazing things with those materials.
Glotz, Samuel and Oerlemans, Marguerite. European Masks. The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26. No. 4, Masks (Winter, 1982). pp. 14-18
Armstrong, Lucille. The Carnival at Basal, Switzerland. Folklore, Vol. 95. No. 1 (1984). pp. 54-56
Tokofsky, Peter. Masking Gender: A German Carnival Custom in Its Social Context. Western Folklore, Vol. 58, No. 3/4. Studies of Carnival in Memory of Daniel J. Crowley (Summer-Autumn, 1999). pp. 299-318
Steinlen, Jean M. and Oerlemans, Marguerite. Winter Customs in Eastern European Countries. The Drama Review: TDR. Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks (Winter, 1982). pp. 19-24
Busojaras photo album (scroll down to the single photo and click on it) http://www.mohacs.hu/?p=15&szid=10#bottom
Budablog: Carnival Time Part I, The Buso Kit http://ganchoverseas.blogspot.com/2007/03/carnival-time-part-i-buso-kit.html
SNPJ.org-Description of the Kurents http://www.snpj.org/Cultural%20Pages/kurentovanje.html
Webzine Sloveniana-Kurents http://www.thezaurus.com/?/webzine/kurentovanje/