Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fastnacht: German Mardi Gras

We know about Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), but who knows about Fastnacht? The Germans also celebrate Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the fasting period of Lent. The Germans call that Tuesday Fastnacht, literally “the night before fasting.”

In Germany Fastnacht has evolved into Karneval, or Fasching, and it’s a big party like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Karneval in Germany can be weeks long, lasting from Epiphany to Fastnacht. Fastnacht has lost its religious significance for many Germans and has become another secular party like Oktoberfest, when folks can go a little crazy, wear masks, march in parades, and mock politicians. Big cities like Cologne and Munich have huge festivals.

But Germans who immigrated to Missouri in the nineteenth century retained the religious significance of that special Tuesday, while still having fun. And they have not turned it into a carnival.

Fastnacht was a day to use up all the cooking fats in the house, because fats were forbidden to be consumed during the forty days of fasting during Lent. How to use up the fat? Well, they fried doughnuts in kettles of hot fat. These pastries were called by names like m├╝tzen and, not surprisingly, fastnachts. The doughnuts came out of the hot grease and were sprinkled with sugar. Since people couldn’t eat them after Tuesday, they feasted on them before midnight until they were all gone. Some families made them several days earlier so they could have time to finish them off.

Another way to get rid of the fat was to eat up all the sausage on Fastnacht. In Hermann, Missouri, the tradition was to ride around on horseback to farms to collect sausages. Then everyone gathered at one place to cook it and eat it in one big community “sausage festival,” or wurstfest.

For many decades, the Hermann and Rhineland area has had a dancing group called the Wurstjaegers (“sausage hunters”) whose name reflects this tradition. They perform annually at Hermann's Wurstfest and at Jefferson City’s Oktoberfest in Munichburg.

In Jefferson City the German immigrants and families got together on Fastnacht evening and had parties with singing and dancing ending abruptly at midnight. The next morning all the fun and indulgence was over. The next morning, Ash Wednesday, the fasting, self-denial, and penance of Lent began and lasted for a long, sober, forty days until Easter Sunday. Come Ash Wednesday, the party was over! People went to church services on Ash Wednesday morning. Priests put ashes on the foreheads of Catholics; many still observe this ritual.

Today there are no public Fastnacht celebrations in Jefferson City. However, the Columbia United Church of Christ in Columbia, which has German roots in its founding, will hold its 28th annual Fastnacht celebration on February 21, to which the public is invited.

They serve a traditional Fastnacht dinner of brats and sauerkraut ending with a handful of the traditional Fastnacht doughnuts made from a century-old recipe from Pennsylvania Dutch (German) country. Plenty of dancing and singing to a German band will enliven your spirits.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
5:30 to 8:00 pm

Knights of Columbus Hall
2525 N. Stadium Blvd.
Columbia, Mo.
(This location on Stadium Blvd. is north of I-70.)

In advance: $8 adults; $4 children 6-12; $20 family.
(Call 573-445-7931 for advance tickets.)
At the door: $10 adults; $5 children 6-12.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.


Osage Bluff Quilter said...

Food looks awesome, now I'm hungry for some Fastnachts, I might make a batch for breakfast tomorrow. It might be brunch before I get them made in case you are in the neighborhood.

Walter Schroeder said...

Our word "carnival" comes from the Latin "carne", meaning "flesh" or "meat", and "levare," meaning "to remove", so it really means "remove the meat". It originally meant the festive time before Lent, but now it means to have a good time eating funnel cakes and corn dogs while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at the State Fair.