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Anything goes on the streets of Lucerne

The Fritschi fool helped kicked off the carnival festivities in Lucerne

(Keystone)

It's carnival time in Lucerne, and at five o'clock on Thursday morning - the day known as "Fat Thursday" - a gun salute kicked off several days of costumed mayhem.

Throughout the carnival, dissonant brass bands crowd into the narrow alleys of the old town. There's dancing and plenty of food and drink. Lucerne's celebration is one of Switzerland's most traditional, but at the same time, possibly the most anarchic.

Fat Thursday is known as the day of honour for brother Fritschi and his kin. Made up of an odd collection of nobles, court jesters, and even a lion, the family is the symbol of Lucerne's carnival.

The carnival kicks off with the Fritschis making their way through the frenzied crowd in the early morning to Chapel Square. There they mount a platform erected around the Fritschi fountain and throw oranges and sweets to the cheering masses.

The Fritschi custom is safeguarded by the 600-year-old Saffron guild, and the duties the Fritschi characters perform on Fat Thursday lend a sense of history to Lucerne's carnival. But unlike Basel's carnival, where more rigid rules ensure tradition is upheld, almost anything goes in Lucerne during what are known as the "wildest days" of the year.

"Creativity is more important than anything else in Lucerne's carnival," explains this year's Fritschi father, Hans Peter Portmann. "Even though the bands are organised into a committee, everyone can do as they please. We try to keep the rules and organisation to a minimum."

The brass bands take part in the many parades but often just go their own way, giving impromptu concerts on the streets and along the picturesque quay of the old town, and taking advantage of the carnival licence to misbehave.

A few dozen ghosts, carrying bloated disfigured heads on their shoulders, bang their kettledrums as they march above the Reuss River. A Martian removes his head to answer his mobile phone while another alien adjusts his huge eyes, as if he can't believe what's unfolding around him.

A band of sheep take up position on the steps leading down from Kornmarkt square, blasting out a number to the satisfaction of hundreds of costumed youth who bounce to the beat.

"It's much wilder here in Lucerne," says Marco Castellaneta, honorary president of Lucerne's association of carnival bands. "There are a lot of groups doing the same thing at the same time, but in their own way. There are no plans, no rules, it just happens."

Musicians swing their trombones back and forth under the ornately painted mural on the façade of the Hotel des Balances. A dozen papier mâché duck heads lie abandoned on a curb, stacked on top of each other. Grotesque faces stare out the windows of a trendy boutique. A group of chickens crosses the road where it plays its own carnival tune.

Carnival has pagan roots when people made lots of noise and wore frightening disguises to drive out winter's evil spirits. But it has grown out of the pre-Lenten festival when Catholics celebrated with feasting and wild partying in preparation for the 40-day fast between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

Castellaneta remembers being frightened by the carnival noise when, as a small boy, he stayed at his grandmother's house in the old town during the festivities. "When I was about six or seven years old, I saw the beauty of carnival for the first time - all the people wearing wonderful masks and costumes. That's when it really started to make an impression on me."

Numerous floats cross the town, mocking recent and historic events that strike a chord with the Swiss or cannot be erased from the collective memory of the people of Lucerne.

Stoic tunnel builders, recalling the building of the nearby Gotthard tunnel in the 19th century, pull a laden railway cart against the current of joyous marching bands. A crippled Swissair plane droops its wings over a bridge, poking fun at the financial mess in which the airline has found itself.

The plane crosses the path of a death procession led by a giant rat in Bishop's robes. The grim reaper takes up the rear, spreading its bony fingers over corpse carrying carts pulled by solemn drummers.

Black humour has been part of carnival since the Middle Ages when the lower classes saw the festival as an opportunity to mock their rulers from behind the safety of their disguises.

In fact, in many Swiss towns, the authorities tried to ban the wearing of costumes. On at least three occasions, carnival led to open rebellion in Switzerland. But the ban had little success in Lucerne and Basel, and costumes are more popular than ever.

Rita Baumann, who has been a member of a carnival band since her youth, describes carnival as a virus. "It's become a little bit too big. It used to be more intimate. It's changed and it will keep changing. But it's still wonderful."

"It's the magic of Lucerne's carnival. It hasn't just expanded in size, but in shape and form, so it's hard for anyone to control it," adds Castellaneta. "That's the magic of Lucerne's carnival, it lives."

"Anyone can take part," agrees Portmann. "You can paint your face tomorrow morning and join in the festivities."

A monk slumps in a narrow alley, already exhausted by the whole affair, or perhaps a little drunk.

by Dale Bechtel


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