Today is Shrove Tuesday, known as the Fasching, the Faschtnacht (fasting night), the Entschtanning ("the coming into existence"), or the Uffdredde ("the emergence") which is observed all across Europe and around the world in many different ways. This is the culmination of Carnival in Brazil and Italy. It is Mardis Gras in Cajun Country. Similar costumed events take place in most of Europe. I remember from my time spent in the erstwhile Yugoslavia that Shrove Tuesdsay was the night for a type of tricks-or-treats among the Croatian children.
In the Deitscherei, this is the day upon which we eat some artery-clogging, yet delicious, deep-fried doughnuts called "Faschtnachtskuche," or simply "fastnachts" in English.
So what is the purpose of all these observances? In the Christian context, Fasching is the last celebration before the onset of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday tomorrow. The purposes of items like the fastnachts is to consume the remaining lard in the household so it is used rather than wasted during the fasting time. As far as I can tell, the consumption of Faschtnachtskuche, King cakes,
pancakes, or similar foods is a tradition stemming from Christianity. It
may have its ultimate origin in Judaism's removal of chametz prior to
Passover. Deitsch tradition is that Faschtnachtskuche must not be
consumed after the onset of Ash Wednesday.
It is virtually indisputable that the costume parades have their roots in Heathen traditions related to the Wild Hunt. In the pre-Christian era, the parades would likely have taken place at various times in early- to mid-February and would have been tethered to the observance that we now know as Groundhog Day.
As with other Wild Hunt depictions (Halloween, King Frost, Belsnickeling/Yule, Mummenschanz, April Fool (possibly), and May Day), the purposes of the parades are a complex weaving of honoring deities, ancestors and compassionate spirits, of placating baneful spirits, and of exerting efforts to hasten the arrival of the growing season. Certainly the Perchtenmaske, or the masks of Berchta, have their roots in Heathen lore; however, the gruesome characteristics may be a result of the condemnation of the cult of Berchta by Catholic authorities in the 15th century.
The Heathen practices were originally tied to lunar calendar observances but eventually became associated with February 2. The timing of Shrove Tuesday comes from the Christian calendar and moves in accordance with the Computus' determination of the timing of Christian Easter.
A hint of the connection between the Heathen events of Groundhog Day and modern Shrove Tuesday may be found in Croatia's creating of the "mesopust," which is a doll made to represent a man who is treated like a scapegoat. This sounds very much like a Butzemann, except the Butzemann is honored rather than burdened, and the Butzemann takes vanquished habits and negative energies with him in fire on Allelieweziel (Halloween). While the Butzemann is typically created for Groundhog Day, it is not uncommon to have his creation occur later in the month. It is quite possible that the traditions of the mesopust and the Butzemann stem from the same traditions.
In the Deitscherei, another aspect of the Fasching is that the last person in the household to arise in the morning is deemed "the Faschtnacht," "der Faas," "der Faschingkluck," or myriad names. When I was growing up, within our household, the last child to arise in the morning of the Fasching had to do one extra chore by the end of the day. Customarily, in many Deitsch households, the last child has to tolerate teasing by his siblings all day long.
The same applies to the last child to arrive at school on Shrove Tuesday.
In the past, there were some rather elaborate teasing rituals involving the clucking sound of chickens in school. As the children arrived, the girls would cluck like hens and the boys would crow like roosters. As another child would arrive, he/she would receive instructions that he could not cluck or crow like the others until yet another child arrived. Instead, the last child would have to call out, "Hallo Faas!" to the next arriving child (see Alfred L. Shoemaker's Eastertide in Pennsylvania, Stackpole Books, 2000, pp. 1-2).
If a child erred and clucked or crowed, there were penalties involved,
particularly having to give a kiss to a member of the opposite gender. Girls, in particular, were encouraged to kiss any boy who caught their fancy.
The clucking, crowing, and kissing sound like they were originally part of some sort of fertility-related ritual. Speaking as a teacher in the post-modern era, I can say that I would be more than a little bit disquieted by my students engaging in this behavior. However, the tradition was clearly in effect well into the 20th century, and aspects of it may well live on in parts of the Deitscherei even now.
Enjoy your Faschtnachskuche, everyone!