National Geographic Croatia, February 2010

For quite a while now, the fertile soil has been frozen under the snow. The days are getting longer, however, and the sun shines in an increasingly higher arc, radiating the white plains with an optimism of its new awakening. Peasants of the village Turčišće in Međimurje spend their winter days in leisure after having spent the long days of spring and fall working in their fields. Now, while it is still cold outside, they do not socialize much. But towards the end of winter and arrival of spring, Carnival takes place. It is the time when the natural order of things is turned upside down, only to be restored once again.

Maskers gather on the morning of Shrove Tuesday along the only road that passes through the village. Various unusual characters chafe their hands to warm up, jog in place, and ring bells. Clouds of fog form from around them from their warm breaths. The most numerous among them are the nap’hanci – men dressed in linen costumes stuffed with straw. Strapped to their waists are huge bells, covering their chests are overturned sheep-wool vests, and all of them hold iron pitchforks or brooms in their hands. Their faces hide under lampas – unusual osier zoomorphic masks with humanlike cheeks, snout and horns. These masks represent rams, pigs, cows, deer, birds, storks, and ducks.

One of the nap’hanci carries a prda – an improvised noise-making instrument; the other two are yoked, dragging a plough behind them. They have plowed a furrow in the middle of the village to ensure fertility in the upcoming year. Elders say how they had used to plow all around the village, but those days are over. Now they hop and jump down the street and enter all of the houses without knocking. Masters of the households gladly let them in, and they sing as they enter, “Here for turnips, here for flax” to invoking good harvest of turnip and flax. Then they squat and cackle so that hens would lay eggs. The ladies had been preparing special dishes for this day and now offer them to the masked guests. Early in the morning, while their husbands had been chopping wood for good fortune in fishing, they slaughtered a rooster and sprinkled its blood across their yards to protect their chickens from all evil. Along with the specially prepared dishes, the masked guests drink špricer (wine and soda), something they never refuse.

The parade goes from house to house with a ruckus, and behind them walks another procession in silence. Many couples are dressed in rags and wear anthropomorphic masks, lafras, representing dirty old men and women. They are lecherous; they fondle in the street, hump each others, and imitate sexual intercourse. In the crowd is one dupli ded – a straw character representing both man and woman.

Walking silently, one couple lags behind the parade. One of them, with a mask of a gypsy, has a moustache and beard. The other, a gypsy woman, is carrying a straw doll that represents a baby. They walk around slowly, not paying attention to anybody, and not talking. Instead, they only stare at houses where a new baby is expected. One more lonely character walks silently around the village, death, wrapped in a white sheet and holding a scythe in his left hand. He visits some houses, says nothing, and does not receive gifts.

At the end of the day, the procession stops by the river Trnava. They lift the gallows that two of the nap’hanci had been dragging around the village all day long. They stage a trial for the gypsy, mocking and humiliating him the whole time. A judge, dressed in fancy clothes, accuses the gypsy of stealing the čmelci and sentences him to death. The gypsy woman, with a cradle in her lap, cries loudly, and the gypsy uses this opportunity to escape. He disappears behind a barn. Four maskers then run after him, catch him, and return with a straw doll representing the gypsy. They hang it and then they drown it in the Trnava River.

The Carnival is over, order has been restored, and the people return to their homes kept warm by heat from wooden stoves and illuminated by the light from oil lamps. The year is 1956, when electricity and the first televisions had been introduced to the village of Turčišće. It was also the year when the Carnival customs were for the first time observed by “outsiders” – the ethnologists. They described the customs, bought the masks for the Ethnographic Museum in Zagreb, and concluded that Turčišće is the only place where the Carnival disguise and use of ancient masks has survived intact.

Half a century later, during the carnival on Saturday, paved streets are full of cars and people gather in the village hall. They have been drinking špricer since the morning. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere before the ground starts swayin’!” Howls a young masker and everyone else bursts out in laughter. “In the old days, the Carnival used to be a holiday, so says my old man,” says thirty four year old Danijel Novak, who has inherited a thirty year old gypsy mask from his father. Back pain prevents him from participating in wild behavior, so he lent the mask to another young man. “People from our village that worked abroad would always come to take part in this, at least from Saturday to Tuesday. And those living and working here were allowed to take off from work! Not so any more. You cannot leave work on Tuesday just like that!”

Other maskers are slowly gathering and immediately help themselves with špricer. “What? Why are you staring at me like that? A masker cannot be sober!” One of them says to me sharply, while špricer trickles down his chin. The others support him: “Well said! Well said!”

Some twenty people gather and start their procession through the village. Most of them wear zoomorphic lampas; the gypsies with their babies, death and some non-traditional characters are also here. However, there is no dupli ded, there is no plow, and they are not invoking good harvest of turnips or flax with a song. The parade stumbles and totters, shouts, and rings bells.  Prankish maskers stop the traffic and open doors of strangers’ cars. They do not enter the houses, but masters of the houses nevertheless await them in the street, with demijohns full of špricer. The masker stops, chat with the man of the house for a while, drink a little, and then move on. Only children still go around trick-or-treating; enthusiastic about wearing their costumes. Except nowadays, they prefer disguising themselves as princesses and clowns.

By the time they return to the village hall, barely able to walk, the band from the neighboring village is already fine-tuning their electric guitars. Although the show is not over yet, half of the crowd has already calmed down and is now and enjoying free špricer while sitting in the warm village hall, and the other half is on the meadow behind the village hall. Without staging a trial, the devil burns a straw figure that hangs from the gallows, and sparks jump into the night sky. While the bonfire still burns and people head towards the sounds of the guitars playing, I ask Danijel Novak what the figure they are burning represents. “Well, I don’t know,” he says, confused. “It has always been a gypsy. The Roma people from the nearby village of Piškorovec have always been stealing from us, so it has always been a gypsy. But, when we were on television, we were told that that was not right. So we do not say it is a gypsy any more. What is it now, I don’t know. The Carnival, I guess! We don’t burn it every year, anyway. When we have lots of performances elsewhere, we don’t do anything back home in Turčišće!”

Back in the village hall, people warm themselves up with servings of beans with sausages, doughnuts for desert, and more demijohns of špricer. People dance while the band plays traditional music, Klinček stoji pod oblokom followed by Mamica su štrukle pekli. They still wear masks on their heads, but as the concentration of alcohol in their blood increases, the people gradually take their Carnival costumes off. The orgy-like atmosphere continues long into the night.

The Turčišće Carnival has by now lost much of its original meaning. Ethnologists say that carnivals are defined by time and social circumstances, so the same elements in different historical moments can have different meaning. Some elements acquire completely new meaning but still retain traces of long forgotten messages, unknown to the present-day participants. Some of the oldest and most attractive of such elements of the Turčišće Carnival are the anthropomorphic masks, lafras, and zoomorphic masks, lampas. The use of masks dates as early as the Stone Age, when they were worn for protection from demons or to identify with the prey. Farmers wore masks for the arrival of the new year in winter, when they used magic to ensure fertility in the upcoming seasons. This is why various fertility elements had been added to the Turčišće masks – horns, snouts, and ears. Besides ensuring fertility, these masks were also supposed to fend off evil forces; together with all the noise and ruckus created during the Carnival. The underlying purpose of these customs was the fear of all evils that accompanied wintertime: infertility, cold, diseases, hunger, wolves and other wild beasts, and fear of everything that evil spirits and demons brought. The purpose of these rituals was to scare them all away.

Although the origins of carnivals may stretch much further into the past, ethnologists can trace them back to the Roman times. “Carnival customs can be found within the former borders of the Roman Empire; and the colonists brought them to America, too,” says ethnologist Nevena Škrbić, a professor at the Zagreb Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “Many scholars relate our carnival with Proto-Slavic elements that invoke spirits of the deceased and with Pagan New Year festivities. The elements of the Pagan New Year can be found both in Christmas and in Easter, and The Church designated the more profane carnival festivity for placement of all the lascivious elements.”

Carnivals have multiple dimensions. Our acclaimed folklorist Ivan Lozica, Head of the Zagreb Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Studies, draws my attention to the three most important ones, all of which can be related to ancient Roman festivities. The critical moments used to take place during the Saturnalia, when, during a short period of “inverted order,” social order could be criticized without punishment. A fake Carnival king would then be selected and he would reign during the festivities. In the end he would be sacrificed, symbolizing the cycles of nature and its eternal renewal.

The Lupercalia was another Roman festivity that significantly influenced carnivals. This old shepherds’ custom focused on magical characteristics and on man’s relationship with nature, such that fertility and good harvest be ensured through the performance of certain rituals. The third and most obvious dimension of carnivals is connected to the Bacchanalia – feasts celebrating drinking, sexual freedom, and uninhibited fun.

All of these dimensions of the carnival, except for the last one, have almost completely disappeared from the carnival tradition in Međimurje. However, Dr. Lozica has concluded that tracing the origins of the carnival does not automatically mean tracing its essence. His colleague, Dr. Maja Povrzanović Frykman, at the University of Malmö in Sweden, had studied the Turčišće Carnival customs in the mid-1980s, including the changes they had undergone in comparison to the outside world. With the arrival of television, the local people became more aware of the large outside world around them and, on occasion, participated in such TV programs. The locals were thrilled with the documentaries made about them in 1968 and 1984. They also started performing outside Turčišće, at folklore and carnival festivals in Zagreb, Čakovec, Varaždin, Ptuj, Mohács (Hungary) and so on.

“We are almost certain that carnival customs in that village would not exist in their present-day form and intensity and that they would not be so relevant for that community if they were not an object of interest for the ‘outside world,’” says Dr. Povrzanović Frykman. She also noted that the media mostly presents these customs in a sensationalistic manner and fails to grasp their essence. “The ‘outside world’ may be interested in the Carnival customs of Turčišće, but it treats them merely as a visual attraction and something exotic, making superficial references to the mythologized ethnic origins. If the ‘outside world’ is interested only in what the carnival means and what is exhibited in media, it means it is not interested at all in the modern people of Turčišće. However, they believe such interest for them does exists. And this belief makes them happy.”

Present-day Turčišće is a small village in Međumirje with a population of around six hundred. There are more cement and textile industry workers than farmers there. They have two grocery stores and a café. During the communist regime, they declared themselves as atheists and now they declare themselves as Catholics. The village has no church, but the parish fete in the chapel is the second most important day in the village, second only to the carnival. However, when I asked them what was the name of the chapel and who its patron saint was, they could not tell me. “Was it some Maria? Or not?” they asked each other. Later they told me that it was St. Florian. Local primary school children attend first through fourth grade in Turčišće and later they go to the neighboring village of Domašinec. They attend high school in Čakovec or Prelog and they can continue higher education in the big cities. Leisure activities include membership in the cultural and performance Society “Lafra” and local volunteer firefighters’ club “Turčišće”. They also have a local soccer club “Borac” that competes in the county league, and an anglers’ club “Ribica.”. The locals have problems with the Roma people from neighboring Piškorovec, most of who live in shanty log cabins. I had been repeatedly warned to stay away from them because they are thieves (they allegedly steal firewood and poultry from Turčišće). When I said I would go there anyhow, they just laughed and said, “You will get robbed; they will take everything from your car – your bags, cameras, everything! Mark our words!”

So I drove to Piškorovec. I did not feel very comfortable while taking a dirt road leading to the first houses. Children approached my car, and stared through the backseat windows as if they were looking for something. An elderly man drove them away, and introduced himself as the village elder. He refused to tell me his name. I asked him if they minded the fact that the people of Turčišće used to burn a straw doll that they called the gypsy in the old days, and what does he say about accusations for frequent petty thefts. “One of ours went to live with the whites,” he said, referring to the villagers of Turčišće, “So they robbed him, too! Everyone is stealing – at least we admit it! Does it bother us? Well, if they don’t mind us, we don’t mind them!”

“The truth is, small village communities like Turčišće are disintegrating today, both socially and culturally,” explained Dr. Povrzanović Frykman. “Turčišće is but one in an endless series of examples of this process, and it does not differ a bit from these others. What makes it specific, however, is their response to such a situation!” While the people of Turčišće may have deliberately abandoned many elements of their carnival and forgotten about their meaning, their masks have become one of the distinguishing features of the entire Međimurje region. “Using their specific culture, the people of Turčišće have managed to penetrate the mass society of today, ‘strange’ to them, and to become an integral element – small but unique – of its cultural mosaic,” said Dr. Povrzanović Frykman, and added: “For them, the carnival is today a banner for their cultural identity, something that can help them win their identity as a village community in the surrounding world that imposes its culture on them. This is the way the people of Turčišće satisfy the general need for social self-determination. But this also satisfies the newly created need for establishing their place in the global social context.”

When man strongly depended on nature, an emphasis was placed on the magical functions of the carnival. Today, when man feels less dependent on nature and more on society, then logically, it is the social dimension of the carnival that matters the most. Despite a wild night with lots of špricer behind them, the maskers return to the village hall in the morning of Carnival Sunday in a disciplined manner. Some of them hold their hands rested on their heads, yet all are laughing. Danijel takes a demijohn from last night and peeps into it in order to see if there is anything left inside. “Well, you have to fight fire with fire!” He says while pouring a new round for the others. Some are still dressed as “dirty old men and women”. Here is also the gypsy with a bearded mask and the gypsy woman with a plastic baby. Bus brakes squeak in front of the hall. The crowd gets in it one by one; it is not so easy for the nap’hanci, but they manage nevertheless.  The full bus leaves for Čakovec, for a carnival party.

They continue drinking in the bus, too, but not as much as yesterday. They joke around, but are somewhat serious, too. The passengers get off the bus and walk the streets of Čakovec with more resolution and pride than yesterday, when they had walked the streets of their own village. They jump on people in the street and scare them, ring their bells, and swing their brooms. They are not stumbling – their pace is self-confident and firm. Two maskers bump into a policeman and pull a prank on him while the crowd watches. One masker has snatched a bike from a man and is now driving it around recklessly. The crowd is watching him, too. Thy gypsy and gypsy woman are lasciviously fondling in the street. The crowd is laughing. This time, the maskers do not remove their masks every now and then to take a swig of špricer, they continue wearing them proudly. They climb on a stage in front of a few hundreds spectators, and instead of performing a program, they merely intensify the noise, ringing, and chaos. The crowd is applauding.

“It is never going to disappear, because people have always been profane and will continue to be profane,” says masker Antun Jakunlija after a snack in a tent, followed by a new round of špricer. We watch the maskers mingle with girls from other villages and lasciviously dance to Međimurje music. Their hands land where they normally shouldn’t, but today is Carnival and many things are allowed. Mrs. Slavica Žvorc is sitting at the other table, accompanied by her seven-year old son Matija, who is holding a small lafra in his hand and is watching the big boys dance. I ask Mrs. Slavica if he would prefer being a clown like others of his age. “Well, I don’t know,” she replies. “This year he said he would rather be a nap’hanec.”