Like Swiss clock-work, the morning train pulled out of Zurich station precisely at 10:46 a.m. Thirty to forty boys and girls, dressed in outlandish purple custumes wearing styrofoam masks and carrying drums, trumpets and other musical instruments, filled up a car in the back. As some sprawled out on seats , sleeping, the more energetic stood in the aisle laughing and clowning. The rambunctious group cavorted for most of the hour's ride, planning what they were going to do at the Carnival.
In mid February the Lucerne Carnival, sometimes referred to as "Fasnacht," takes place. Its social, political and cultural background dates back to the Middle Ages. Originally it was an acient heathen custom "to drive out the winter demons."
During the 1300's, nine guilds had been established in Lucerne for various faction groups: grocers, carpenters, stone-masons and sculptors, book-binders, book-illustrators, book printers, rope-makers, coopers and potters. In celebration of the founding of these guilds, a feast became an annual event in which members dined, drank and raised havoc at the various taverns and halls throughout the city. The Lucerne Town Council, during this same period, provided a thanksgiving service to commemorate the victory of the Swiss Army which defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Ragaz in 1446.
These separate events eventually merged into one festivity, thus giving birth to the present day Lucerne Carnival. Processions, masquerade balls, and dinners are held over the three-day spree much like those held in New Orleans (Mardi Gras), Rio (Carnival) and Munich (Fasching), before the 40-day Lent period begins. Regardless of where this merry-making takes place, the feelings are similar: frivolity, chaos and release.
"Fasnacht" is a time when a person lets his imagination run away with himself , reflected an old-time Lucerne Carnival observer. "The person can hide behind a mask or inside a costume and just let go," she said.
Carnival societies plan a whole year in advance, choosing a theme designing outfits and working hard. But after Ash Wednesday, the party's over and the members resume their daily activities. All the stores close down during the processions for a couple of hours. But throughout the day and night, the "Crazy Bands," called "Guggenmusiken" such as the one which rode the train from Zurich, continue their noise-making. Sometimes it's actually music. But it doesn't really make any difference, everyone still feels the excitement as they crowd the courtyards and alley ways, and lean over balconies in this picturesque Canton and town called Lucerne, to be part of "Fasnacht."