Until the 1900’s, only the valley’s inhabitants knew Lötschental’s masks. Over the next four decades, Tschäggättä masks gained recognition as works of art and a unique cultural heritage. After WWII, with recognition, the Lötschental Valley’s increased contact with the world, and greater demand, there was a golden age of Tschäggättä masks.
Tschäggättä masks are instantly recognizable. Their distinguishing features include:
Large, smiling mouths, either with carved wooden teeth, or toothless (sometimes they have animal teeth
The mouth is either s-shaped, curved up or rectangular
They usually feature bulging, uneven eyes
Thomas Antonietti, curator of the Lotschentaler Museum in Kippel (and whose family has a collection of over 400 of them), said “Tschäggättä can be sourced back a few hundred years to portrayals of the devil–deformed, hairy, hook-nosed and horned, wild-haired and snaggle-toothed–in medieval church theatre.” They have over 60 masks on display at the museum.
Today, the remote Lotschental Valley has around 30 mask-carvers. While the masks are widely available for sale (if you go to the valley, don’t expect to see them lined up for sale like mini Eiffel Tower’s in Paris), I’ve seen ones at Geneva’s Plainpalais flea market. You sometimes see mask-carving workshops or lessons on Myswitzerland.com, www.loetschental.ch and other sites. What’s better than buying one as a souvenir, making your own mask!
Basel has the only ProtestantCarnival celebration in this part of the world. As a result, they do things a bit differently. Don’t worry, it is still tons of fun. Here are some of the ways in which Basel’s carnival is unique:
The instruments in Basel are mainly fifes/piccolos/flutes and drums. This makes the music reminiscent of military tattoos. Most of the songs sound like they were composed to march to. I even recognized a couple (Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic).
Some carnival celebrations are an orgy of drunkenness, license and excess. Basel’s Protestant character and general Swissness means that obnoxious behavior, lewdness and inappropriately revealing attire are unwelcome. Unlike more fleshy and raucous celebrations, imagination, satire, wonder and magic are the order of the day.
The Reformation made efforts to suppress the carnival. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic church also tried to end it because of its subversive aspects. During this time, celebrations continued in the form of a “feast day”. For this reason, Basel’s carnival is not called Carnival, but instead Fastnacht (which refers to the fast after the feast). Military guilds were involved in these celebrations and influenced today’s celebrations. Doubtless, the marching by numberous organized groups, the fife and drum music and the tattoo-like parading were all influenced by them.
German immigrants brought carnival traditions with them. You see their influence in the lanterns, elaborate parades, floats and marchers displaying large caricature heads (that often lampoon public figures and politicians).
Enormous float-size lanterns satirically depict current topics and public figures. Many of this year’s floats addressed the financial crisis.
Poets and songwriters compose humorous commentary on current affairs, much of which lampoons politicians. They recite them in pubs and play the songs in the street. These are written in the Basel dialect, so that only locals can understand the airing of the city’s dirty laundry.
Tschäggättä are frightening figures that wear furs, giant cowbells around their waists and carved wooden masks. Every inch of the person underneath the costume is covered to prevent their recognition. Tschäggättä walk the streets during Carnival waving large wooden sticks, scaring and/or tossing soot (nowdays confetti) at their unsuspecting victims. An unwritten rule, allows only unmarried men to do this. Go figure. Guys always try to arrange things so that they have all the fun.
It sounds like a rockin’ good time to me, but some may ask why? Tschäggättä stems from a time when winter cut the Lötschental Valley off from the outside world during winter. It was fairly isolated the rest of the year. Like many rural places, the church dominated many aspects of daily life. Local peasants saw the time around Carnival as an opportunity to let off some steam, an expression of anarchy and rebellion. Or, it could come from the heathen tradition of scaring away the spirits of winter.
The legend of Tschäggättä describes them as wild men, thieves from the no longer existing town (but poorer) across the valley that would come to steal. The thieves dressed themselves up in frightening costumes to create fear and aid in their larceny.