Winter’s last dance: carnival customs in South Tyrol Winter’s last dance: carnival customs in South Tyrol Winter’s last dance: carnival customs in South Tyrol Winter’s last dance: carnival customs in South Tyrol Winter’s last dance: carnival customs in South Tyrol

Winter’s last dance: carnival customs in South Tyrol

Rough, rustic and traditional: in some communities in South Tyrol and the Alpine region, ancient carnival customs have been preserved. The winter is bid farewell with a lot of noise and fanfare in accordance with traditional customs and with an astonishing wealth of facets. There is hooting, rattling, croaking and ringing for all it's worth – as long as it’s loud and colourful.

When terrifying giant figures make their way through the crowd, funny (or cunning) women play tricks on the onlookers, mysterious white-clad figures adorned with colourful paper flowers and carrying giant cowbells on their backs rush through the streets, then it’s carnival in South Tyrol. “Maschggra” or “Fastnacht” - as it is commonly known in the Alpine region - marks the end of winter, which was associated with cold and hardship. With the change from winter to spring, people could look forward to brighter days again.

However, the origins of Shrove Tuesday customs are shrouded in mystery. The term itself could come from the Old High German fasta (fasting) and refer to the exuberant celebrations before the start of the long period of Lent. However, connections to pre-Christian rites centred around fertility, demons and the change from winter to spring are also possible. Whatever the case, many people look forward to the "fifth season" then as now.


Villages turn into madhouses
Carnival or "Maschggra" lasts for seven days in South Tyrol: from Fat Thursday to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, some communities in South Tyrol are in a state of emergency. Carnival is called "Maschggra" in South Tyrolean dialect: "Maschggra giahn" means to dress up and show oneself in public or take part in a parade. We have picked out some of the most curious and colourful carnival customs in South Tyrol.

“Zusslrennen” in Prad am Stilfserjoch

The “Zusslrennen” in Prad am Stilfserjoch in the upper Vinschgau Valley is unique in South Tyrol and takes place on Fat Thursday. Young boys parade through the streets of the village as so-called “Zusslen”. Dressed all in white and decorated with colourful paper flowers, they carry huge cowbells on their backs, strapped around their bellies. These bells weigh 20kg or more and make a correspondingly loud noise. They are accompanied by six other boys, the socalled white horses, also dressed in white. The carter drives the team with a long whip, which he cracks loudly. Next comes the sower, who throws the "seed" (sawdust) into the crowd, followed by three couples: farmer and farmer's wife, farm labourer and maid and finally "Zoch" and "Pfott", an exuberant couple dressed in rags. All participants are equipped with agricultural tools and parade through the streets of the village with a lot of noise and commotion, either to drive away the evil spirits and winter or to wake up the grain.

“Proder Maschger”

The “Proder Maschger” parade also takes place in Prad am Stilfserjoch. A 17-strong troupe plus an accordion player, parades from inn to inn on Carnival Sunday and Tuesday. It consists the "Bajaz", a man dressed in a colourful checked costume with a pointed hat and staff, followed by eight couples who dance to a different tune, to which the "Bajaz" beats the beat. The order of the couples is precisely defined: Gentleman and Lady, “Tuxner and Tuxnerin”, farmer and farmer's wife, Styrian and Styrian woman, gypsy and gypsy woman, “Zillertaler and Zillertalerin”, “Mohr and Mohrin” and “Zoch” and “Pfott” - all performed by men. While the dance performance continues in a strictly predetermined order after the first round, the farmer goes round with his hat and collects donations, the farmer's wife orders drinks for the "Maschger", while the gypsy couple sneak behind the bar and steal alcoholic drinks. The audience is also cheated out of drinks and cigarettes, while Zoch and Pfott attack the guests and kiss their way through the rows. As soon as the song "Muss i denn zum Städtele hinaus" is played, the troupe leaves the inn and moves on to the next pub.

Egetmann parade in Tramin
The Egetmann parade takes place there every two years on Shrove Tuesday. With 800 (only male) participants, it is probably the largest parade in South Tyrol. Months of preparation go into decorating floats, repairing or making new figures and preparing costumes. The parade follows a precise script. At the centre is the Egetmann-Hansl, whose wedding is celebrated. The boisterous wedding party consists of the Wild Man and the Hunter, the White Bear and the Green Bear, snapping cattle, carters, “Burgl and Burgltreiber”, rich and poor gypsies, threshers, cobblers, tailors, “Boccamander”, coopers, pan-fitters, moonshiners, blacksmiths, washerwomen and many other figures who parade on wagons and on foot and entertain the spectators. With the exception of the Wild Man and the White and Green Bears, none of the participants wear a mask, but are simply painted with soot or make-up. Soot, sawdust, dust and confetti are also provided in abundance for the audience. A speciality of the Egetmann parade are the “Schnappviecher” or “Wudelen”. These peculiar carnival figures are often over three metres tall and have a crocodile- or dragon-like head covered in fur. They have horns, but no ears. The lower jaw is movable and snaps open and closed with a loud clatter.

Perkeo’s “Maschggra”
Perkeo is a historically documented figure who saw the light of day over 300 years ago as Clemens Pankert in Salurn. The man of small stature was initially a button maker by trade. The Palatine Elector Karl Philipp III became aware of the cheeky and hard-drinking man and took him with him to Heidelberg, where he rose from court jester to cupbearer and barrel keeper. When asked if he wanted another glass of wine, the little man is said to have always replied with the question: "Perchè no?" (Why not?). His nickname Perkeo is said to come from this repeated phrase.
In even-numbered years, the key to the Salurn town hall is handed over to this very Perkeo dwarf, who runs the town for a week. The participants in "Perkeo's Maschggra" have their own codex, the "Kodex de Perkeo". A special feature of this still young parade (2009) is that women are also allowed to take part.

Plough pulling in Stilfs
In addition to the "Proder Maschger" or the "Zusslrennen", the "Pflugziachn" in Stilfs is also one of the old carnival customs in the Upper Vinschgau Valley. On Shrove Saturday around midday, the participating figures parade through the village: farmers, servants and travelling folk. Everything revolves around the central object, a plough, which is pulled by a young lad, the “horse”. At the end of the procession, all the figures meet in the village square to steal dumplings following a precisely defined script: The farmers are served dumplings with cabbage. The other figures also try to get some of the good food, but are fended off with flails. In the end, however, nobody has to go hungry because there is enough for everyone.

Carnival fun for young and old

In most communities in South Tyrol, carnival is an exuberant family celebration with larger or smaller parades. Here too, weeks of preparation are required for the elaborately designed floats and sometimes lovingly home-made costumes for young and old. The carnival parades are particularly important in villages with a lively club life and are organised with a great deal of effort.

Why do people dress up for carnival?
During the carnival season, society accepts it when we go over the top, play pranks and do not behave according to general conventions. By slipping into a different personality, we can reduce our personal responsibility without being recognised. This opens up new scope for roles and behaviour, as well as opportunities for social interaction, all of which generally remain without unpleasant consequences.

Psychologists emphasise that disguises are like a holiday for the psyche. In other words: by dressing up, we can live out facets of our personality that we (may) pay too little attention to in everyday life. It is, so to speak, our anarchic, wild, freedom-loving side that is suppressed in “normal” life due to social conventions. According to psychologists, many people have this inevitably dormant need that can be acted out at carnival.

Let's get into the fray!

Experiments have shown that items of clothing - such as a doctor's coat - do have an effect on people’s behaviour and appearance. In addition, people who live out their identity in many different roles and receive positive feedback in return are better able to deal with setbacks. The “inner pirate” should therefore not only be given some space during the carnival season, but also in everyday life. So: let's get stuck into the carnival hustle and bustle!

Tourismusverein Hafling-Vöran-Meran 2000 | 2/8/2024
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