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Carnival: burning men, fancy dress and nuns' farts

Carnival: burning men, fancy dress and nuns' farts

by Sarita Rao 4 min. 12.02.2022 From our online archive
Carnival traditions, its origins and what Nonnefäscht and Stréimännchen are all about, plus which parades and cavalcades will go ahead or are postponed
Diekirch Cavalcade distributing sweets and beer
Diekirch Cavalcade distributing sweets and beer
Photo credit: Pierre Matgé

Are you planning to join the Fuesgecken (carnival revellers) this year and don fancy dress and delight in the excessive consumption of nuns' farts? Even if you can't attend a masked ball or a parade you can still try this sweet carnival delicacy. 

That's right, of the many varieties of doughnuts, or beignets, on offer during Carnival, the nun's fart, or Nonnefäscht, is the small knotted one (supposedly resembling the knot at the back of a nun’s tunic) that comes with a dusting of icing sugar. 

For the uninitiated, Carnival, or Fuesent, begins on 2 February with Liichtmëssdag, or Candlemas Day, and technically ends on Äschermëttwoch, or Ash Wednesday, which, in Luxembourg, culminates in the burning of a straw man, or Stréimännchen, in the Moselle town of Remich (except in leap years when it's a straw woman, or Stréifrächen).

Burning of a straw man with an empty bottle of wine symbolising the excesses of Carnival Photo: Chris Karaba
Burning of a straw man with an empty bottle of wine symbolising the excesses of Carnival Photo: Chris Karaba

Local marching bands provide a musical accompaniment as the procession carries the dummy through the town to the bridge between Luxembourg and Germany, where it is duly set alight, dispersing the evil spirits of winter and celebrating the arrival of spring.

The straw man scapegoat must also atone for the transgressions of the carnival revellers, and, as a symbol of the costly carnival period, he usually carries a wallet and an empty bottle.

History of Carnival

According to the Luxembourg government website, the traditions of Carnival in the Grand Duchy date back to 1870 in Diekirch, and the earliest recorded mention of it is in 1884. The original celebration is thought to have its roots in pagan times, when winter spirits needed to be driven out so the summer ones could return.

The carnival feast was the last opportunity for common people to eat well, as there was often a food shortage at the end of winter as stores ran out. Until spring produce grew, people were limited to meagre meals during this period of fasting. Livestock were usually slaughtered in November, and meat could only be preserved for a limited period of time. All remaining stocks of lard, butter and meat had to be eaten before they rotted.

Origin of Fasching and Carnival terms

In Germany, the celebration Fasching (which starts 11 November at precisely 11:11am and ends on Shrove Tuesday) dates back to the 13th century. The word is thought to derive from the modern German word fasten ('to fast' in English). However, some historians think the word could also derive from the verb fasen, which means to be silly or foolish.

The word Carnival originated in Italy in the 17th century and has its roots in the Latin phrase carne levare or 'away with meat'.

Unable to ban the pagan tradition, Christianity (specifically Catholicism) embraced it. Today's celebration with masked balls and parades is thought to have begun in Medieval Venice and spread throughout Catholic Europe and eventually overseas during colonial times.

Luxembourgers love a good party, and, unlike their neighbours, carnival festivities do not come to an abrupt end on Ash Wednesday but continue until the fourth Sunday of Lent, or Bretzelsonndeg (Pretzel Sunday).

Carnival Sunday, or Fuessonndeg, is traditionally reserved for masked balls and parties, while Carnival Monday (Fuesméindeg) is the day for parades and cavalcades.

Processions make their way through towns Photo: Guy Jallay
Processions make their way through towns Photo: Guy Jallay

Satirising the wealthy and powerful

For more than half a century, there has been a strong tradition of cavalcade parades in Luxembourg, with people creating inventive floats to poke fun at the wealthy and powerful. The Diekirch parade was first held in 1870, with a view to raising money for the town's poor folk. 

Unfortunately the revellers had so much fun, the accounts were in the red. These days, the Diekirch parade is one of the biggest in the Grand Duchy, with more than 50 floats which distribute about 6 tons of sweets. 

Quirky traditions around the world

Outside Luxembourg, other countries maintain some quirky traditions.

In Quebec City, carnival is celebrated with ice sculpting, dog sledding and a snow bath. In Avilés in Spain, a giant effigy of a sardine is paraded through the streets and then burned or buried.

In Dunkirk, the procession includes giant umbrellas, and fish are thrown into the sea. And in Binche, in Belgium, the town is overrun with hundreds of 'Gilles', an iconic carnival figure who shakes a stick to ward off evil spirits and throws oranges at the crowd as a symbol of the coming spring.

Of course, the best known carnival, in Rio de Janeiro, normally welcomes more than two million people per day. 

Which parades and cavalcades are going ahead?

This year, at the time of writing, the Diekirch parade was postponed until 8 May but the one at Esch-sur-Alzette is still due to go ahead on 20 March. The Wasserbillig and Schifflange cavalcades are cancelled. It is probably best to check with your local commune to find out if parades are postponed or cancelled. You can keep up to date with which carnival parades in Luxembourg here

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