Between the World Wars: Articles from the Syracuse Union, available through the New York State Newspaper Project

Fat Tuesday Activities

March 1, 1929 page 3

The Evolution of Fat Tuesday Ideas over the Course of the Years


by Herbert Kunecke

Fastnacht! Carnival! To one person the words mean nothing, to another they offer a welcome occasion to clamor anew about the depravity of the times. And to a third individual they indicate exuberant days of cares forgotten amid joy.

"Let's not dispute over opinion." Why should we begrudge anyone who revels in boozy Mardi Gras enjoyment for an hour or two when the mask covers up all the facial worry lines, and all cares and woes remain at home in the closet with the everyday clothes? Our parents didn't do things any differently, perhaps even more madcaply than we. Our ancestors from hundeds of years ago were much more ribald and boisterous than we, but in our time of jubulent celebration the day is not that far different from when we celebrated the 2500 year reign of the Carnival Prince.

2500 Years? Yes, as far back as the Roman monarchy these days of celebration were known. Grant it, they were called something different — Saturnalia. They celebrated these days openly and honestly with wine and fun-loving women and no one begrudged them their noisy activities. The festival lasted five days and was originally dedicated to the god Saturn. The Romans commemorated with ample libations the legendary and halcyon days of the Golden Age. Even the humblest slave was allowed to enjoy himself on these days and carouse at his master's table. Those at the table crowned themselves with the leaves of the evergreen myrtle shrub and showered each other in the precursor to our confetti, fragrant roses. Freedom of speech ruled and even the most strait-laced Roman lady let loose talk flow from her tongue to another's ear.

The custom was so deeply rooted in the population that even the young christian church tolerated it, all the more because the long celebration led to quiet contemplation after such intoxicated high spirits. Then there was the widespread revelling which ended with the first day of the seven-week fasting whereby people abstained from celebration and the enjoyment of meat. "Carne vale" literally means remove the meat and the word carnival may actually be derived from it. However we should not reject the possibility that the derivation comes from "carrus navalis," a ship's wagon which hauled the ships of the lower Rhine in their celebratory procession through the streets of the harbor towns on the Rhine Waal, Maas, and Schelde once the ice melted and shipping reopened.

The custom made its way to Germany at a relatively late date. When this might have been is beyond investigation however in the 14th century fastnacht was a generally recognized folk festival commemorating the old germanic festivals of the earth gods. Wagons laden with people in colorful costumes, the predecessor to the Cologne Rose Monday and the Munich Carnival Procession, rattled over the bumpy roads. Scores of women and girls, the old ones jeering, the young ones teasing, pulled ploughs through the streets to symbolize the beginning of planting season. In these days of noisy revelling each wanted to loosen the reins on his ribaldry and yet not be punished. Because fools were allowed to speak freely at court, men wore clothing with attached bells and held rattles. Face masks allowed men and women to be bold in a way no bare face could be. Forward individuals could whisper sweet words into a stranger's ear and it was permitted to tolerate a kiss since neither of the two knew who was behind the mask and besides, the law of fool's liberties proscribed that any bold act was excused. Along with unbridled revelry the pleasure of pulling pranks was enjoyed since disguises protected one from discovery.

Often the law of fool's liberties was used to accuse unpopular authorities of significant misdeeds or to make fun of their actions. This occurrence and often all traces of ribaldry prompted many city authorities to either forbid public masking or restrict the right to wear disguises to individual guilds.

Fastnacht plays assumed an essential place among the festival's activities, which weren't as well behaved as the performances we have today, such as The Fledermaus. A number of these comodies and farces have survived up til today and give a valuable look at the morals of the Middle Ages. The eternal problem of man versus woman was described in course terms offering inexhaustible possibilities for cavorting, gut wrenching scenes which admittedly could not be aesthetically elevated to a refined level.

The Reformation era curbed the ribald aspects and the horror of the Thirty Years War completely stopped the fastnacht turmoil and the fools festivals in Germany. The Napoleonic Wars resurrected fastnacht customs in the form of the Italian carnival, which was taken up with open arms in the Rhineland and Munich. It was celebrated primarily by the artist classes in protest against petit bourgeois philstinism with orgiastically exaggerated revelry. During the revolutionary period of 1848 the custom filtrated into the upper classes and took over the residents of mansions. Even the most steadfast artillery officer couldn't resist the temptation to skip the armored tank convention and lustily join the revelers. The crinoline and corset wearing women heartily gave in to their wantonness and donned trousers. The excessive formalities of everyday life bore the guilt when these brief opportunities to surrender oneself freely and unreservedly presented themselves. Gradually the festivities took on more civilized forms. The middle class stayed to itself and even the German artist class set limits on its exuberance and applied its talents to the rapidly becoming famous public parades in the art centers on the Rhine and in Munich.

In our time of female emancipation, since women and girls may give in to themselves freely and naturally, carnival actvities have taken away the dangerous temptation to experience the unusual. The innocent pleasures of dancing and flirting, wine and high spirits, are the only things needed in life's struggle to grant the heart what it wants.

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Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks