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“Fasnacht” and Tirol's Mask-Carvers

In Tirol, the processions marking “Fasnacht” (the Shrovetide carnival) are such wild celebrations that these traditional events are only staged every 3, 4 or even 5 years.

One stunning example is the "Imster Schemenlaufen" in Imst, and it demands the dedication and passion of a whole city over many months. 900 men - and it is only the men, as elsewhere in Tirol too - are actively involved in the events. They hop, leap, dance, make loud noises and music as they parade through the streets. The figures are handed down over the ages, and are elaborately costumed. Shrovetide costumes, wigs, masks, gloves and hats leave barely any part of the skin uncovered.

As the peals of the midday bells die away on the Sunday, this unique procession shapes up. The audience are driven back by characters wielding a water-pistol (the "Spritzer"), a round sack (the "Sackner") and a powder-puff from a girl's handbag (the "Kübelemaje"). The witches sport sweeping wide skirts and pigtails. They raise their brooms over their heads and accompany their dance with barking cries. Then the main figures in this riotous assembly appear - the "Roller" and "Scheller". Sporting giant head-dresses, they dance the "Gang'l" together. As they do so, they strike out a rhythm on the large bells. When this sound booms out, accompanied by the silvery shimmer of the small bells sported by the "Roller", everyone holds their breath and a supreme moment in the carnival fun is reached.

Your gaze is drawn to the masks - highly expressive artistic masterpieces. And they are simply beautiful. The mature, striking masculinity of the "Scheller", with his darker skin-tone, beard and bushy eyebrows, and the light, youthful playfulness of the "Roller" with feminine eyes, rosy cheeks and a smiling mouth are clearly differentiated from one another. Often characterised as the turning-point of the old winter and the young spring, these masked plays probably date back to the Baroque love of games and the masquerades performed by the church and the nobility, which have since been adopted by the regular citizens and farmers.

Nowhere are these traditions supported with such a passion as in the Tirol, regardless of whether it is the "Matschgerer" figures between Innsbruck and Hall or the "Schleicherlaufen" in Telfs, the "Blochziehen" in Fiss, the "Wampelerreiten" in Axams or the "Schellenlaufen" in Nassereith. All have their own way of doing things, their own particular representation of a test of strength and their own wild celebration, accompanied by typical figures. But they all wear masks and outrageous costumes.

Viewed in that light, behind every mask there's a woman. And not just because they customise the make-up and costumes to fit the men sporting them. In Nassereith, the masks are even carved by a woman. Irene Krismer, now 71, is a seamstress by training, but her father encouraged her to carve souvenirs like geese and deer, showing her all the holds and each cut. And because her first piece was so successful, she really enjoyed her carving. Carving masks is something she taught herself later in life. Today, pieces by Irene hang in the Nassreith Fasnachtsmuseum and are worn with pride for the Fasnacht celebrations.

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