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Europe’s Festivals: Carnival in Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland


Carnival, the ultimate midwinter festival, is celebrated with gusto in Slovenia (masked hairy creatures marauding); stylishly in Venice (elegant masked revelers partying); and musically in Luzern (loud bands parading).

Complete Video Script

Many modern celebrations are rooted deep in Europe’s dark age past. In a time filled with superstition and mystery, when winters were bleak and hungry, people craved an off-season pick-me-up. Throughout the Catholic world, Carnival was the ultimate midwinter festival.

A memorable way to experience Carnival traditions is in the countryside of Slovenia. Whether it’s in the mountains or the valleys, a common theme is a visitation of masked hairy creatures. Some are called “Kurents,” and others are called simply “the Ugly Ones.” These woolly monsters parade through villages making a racket, rattling and clanging their bells from door to door, chasing away evil spirits, and trying to frighten off winter.

Homeowners eventually come to the door and, to quell the clamoring mob, they give the leader a sausage…and a few cups of wine for the gang. The Ugly Ones swing their hips wildly with satisfaction. This ritual is a remnant from the distant past, when families were persuaded to share food during hard times.

Another band of characters also roves from house to house. A group of ploughmen pull a colorful wagon decked out in ribbons and flowers representing fertility and the coming of spring. The homeowner is asked for permission to “plough for the big turnip.” The ploughmen then drag the fanciful plough behind men dressed as horses. This “wakes up the soil” in preparation for a season of bountiful crops. Cracking whips announce the procession.

After the symbolic ploughing and sowing, the homeowner offers the merry band eggs and sausage, and wishes the merry band good health and a good harvest.

The best-known carnival celebration in Europe is in Venice. Each winter, carnival casts a spell on Venetians and visitors alike. Following a tradition that originated in the 13th century, the city slips behind a mask of anonymity as Venetians promenade, pose, and pretend to be someone they’re not. Authority is challenged; rules are broken. The goal: to indulge in all the pleasures that will be forbidden in Lent.

An elegant disguise is both transformative and liberating. But it’s the mask, so symbolic of this enigmatic city, that functions as a cloak of invisibility. The pleasurable appeal of anonymity is as powerful today as it was in the Middle Ages. As dusk falls, the back streets come alive with strangers. Now — as then — in Venice, decadence rules the night.

In palazzos off the Grand Canal, elaborately staged parties take the aura of mystery a step further. Behind their masks, all people — from bankers to bakers — are equal. Tonight no one knows who’s who, and reality seems a distant dream. And as it was centuries ago, what happens in Venice…stays in Venice.

Carnival is celebrated in a much less elegant fashion in Switzerland, where the locals, often considered the most buttoned-down people in Europe, really let loose. And an epicenter of this mid-winter craziness before Lent are the celebrations in the city of Luzern.

Before sunrise, the driving beat of multiple parading bands wakes the city up like a mobile alarm clock. Musicians wearing weird masks — playing loudly, often out of tune — march through the waking town.

Today is Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday…the same Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans. After six days of Carnivale celebration this is the climax. Lent and fasting start tomorrow. But today is all about bringing on what is fun and tasty, music of all kinds, costumes of all kinds, and food of all kinds. What better time for a little cheese fondue?

After sunrise the bands forget typical Swiss discipline and order and break up, wandering randomly throughout the town. The bands play on, the streets are filled with the vibe of relaxed good will.

Restaurants are packed. Bands spontaneously take the stage and play enthusiastically. A children’s parade is a sweet way to train kids to carry on this tradition. Even five-star hotels open their doors and let the partying public celebrate inside.

Somehow, late in the afternoon the groups reorganize for a long parade. Band members with famous Swiss stamina keep playing. Themes vary from ancient pagan to political satire and to every creative scene in between.

With the end of Fat Tuesday parties, carnival celebrations in Luzern and across Europe are finished. Festival-filled valleys and towns are now quiet as, after Fat Tuesday comes Ash Wednesday…and the party is officially over.

The end of Carnival coincided with the leanest days of winter. Imagine 4,000 years ago, when these stones marked the seasons. Imagine in ancient times the despair of winter. Where did the sun go? Nothing’s growing. Will we all starve? But gradually — every year — flowers bloomed, crops grew again, and the green promise of spring returned.

Back in pagan times, communities built stone circles — which experts believe functioned as celestial calendars — to track the sun and mark the seasons. With the spring equinox, druids would gather to celebrate the end of winter — and the arrival of spring, a time of renewal, birth, and fertility.

Over the centuries, the Church embraced the same springtime theme of new life — and that’s Easter. Easter is preceded by a week filled with holy activities, when Christians remember Jesus Christ’s final week progressing from suffering…to death…to resurrection.