NEW ULM - The reaction they evoke can range from hilarity to horror - they are, as they would be the first to admit, "the relatives everyone has, but nobody wants to claim."
They have become so intimately intertwined with people's image of New Ulm that it's hard to believe they represent a 25-year-old - rather than a much older - tradition.
I speak of the Narren of New Ulm - the masked characters encountered at various festivals and other occasions, their carved, painted alter-egos crafted to repel as well as attract, like creatures rising out of a folk tale, or the vivid imagination of a child...
The current group of Narren has grown to about 30 different masked characters.
The local variation of the centuries-old tradition began in 1989 when two women - who wish to remain anonymous in deference to, and in keeping with, Narren tradition - walked masked into Heritagefest as if they "owned the place" - striding in with more confidence than they actually felt, to suppress their apprehension.
The ladies had run into a German masked group at the same event the previous year, and, impressed with that group's masks, had inquired and learned about the custom.
The conversation led to the women having their own masks crafted - true works of art carved in Steinhilben, Germany- and the original characters - and legend - of Hattie and Gretchen were born.
"Alone and isolated on the prairie, Hattie and Gretchen spend many long days doing whatever people do all day long on the prairie," goes their tale. "They rarely come to town, but, whenever there is a festival, Hattie and Gretchen are there, looking for someone to dance and have fun with them.
"Some of the people in Gans Stadt are afraid of their long noses... They think Hattie and Gretchen know too much! But others love to see them..."
The first characters - who cheerfully mingled with crowds and cooperated with various bands to create good humor, good will and high spirits- impressed the folks running Heritagefest, the signature New Ulm festival now succeeded by Bavarian Blast. A cooperative relationship with the festival - and its key performers - such as the Concord Singers male singing group - was born. Gradually, an increasing array of characters was added to the mix, ending with 30 or so of them at present.
The signature theme of Gans Stadt, or Goosetown, evolved as well - a common storyline that weaves the characters' stories together - an archetype both rooted in local folklore and reflective of universal human motifs.
Residing in their imaginary "village" along the Minnesota River, the characters are easily recognizable. Otto and Gunther, the lovable brothers - bachelors, to be sure - live in a cave along the hillside near Gans Stadt. No one is sure how they do it, but they are always dressed neatly and have enough to eat; they have a friendly, lovable nature, which makes it easy for them to get what they want at bargain rates... Rosa is the village baker who takes the cake when it comes to baking. Nobody can bake like she does. She always seems to have plenty of cookies and other goodies on hand, both in and outside the bacherei... Tillie, sometimes known as the Feder Frau, is best known for the geese she raises. She calls them her family and is always talking to them. Some of the people in Gans Stadt say she sleeps with them, too! Feathers from Tillie's geese are lucky, and whoever gets one will have lots of good luck... Shatzie, the book-keeper, may be shy, but look out! Once in a while, she can really kick up her heels! She thinks she is the height of fashion in her pink and purple outfit, and she hopes some day a handsome dude will come and take her far away from the dull, mundane life in Gans Stadt...
Decked out in the brightest green, a red feather on her hat and swine grease on her face, Tante Anna stands out in any place! She owns the local pub, where everyone likes to meet. Entertainment is usually provided by Sepp, the unmusical musician. Often, the village "nobility" - the Baron and Baroness - brother and sister of questionable descent and self-proclaimed fame- can be found sampling the latest brew. Also meet: Pinnella, the flower lady; Louis, the French fur trader; Juergen, the pickle man; Sophia, the seamstress; Heilige Kuh (Holy Cow) and her good friend, a goat named Bucky Bock; Gusty, the happy prairie wind; Schlaukopf, the mystical creature from the deep woods; Poppy Ping, the popcorn lady; Chef Krauselein, who cooks like no one else; the Mayor, who tolerates no dissent; the newly-added Cats, handcrafted in a German shop; Agatha, the Apple Lady; Katarina, Die Wasser Dame; Elsie, housekeeper at the hotel; Hansel, the watch maker; Bertram, the broom maker; or a personal favorite, Anton, who is, well, himself...
The masked characters draw on, and localize, a centuries-old tradition. Carnivals are held in southern German cities, Alpine villages, the Rheinland, and elsewhere. Associated with festivals of the Christian church (wild partying before Lent begins), they go back to pagan times. Ugly masks were worn to drive out the evil spirits of winter and encourage the coming of spring and good crops. In the Middle Ages, Carnival gave people a break from a tightly-structured class system, as they were able to hide their background behind imaginative masks and costumes. Towns and villages that mark the traditions have Fools' Guilds (Narrenzunfte), each with its history, uniquely expressed in costumes and rituals. All members wear the same costume and abide by the ritual prescribed by the same mask.
In contrast, New Ulm's Narren are individuals, each with their own persona, whose stories are developed to fit into that of a community. The Narren of New Ulm are also unique in that they provide year-round, rather than seasonal, appearances. In addition to supporting entertainment at festivals, the group tailors appearances to specific audiences, offering stage performances that introduce the characters and include a brief history of masking, favorite dances and audience participation; "playlets" highlighting the personality of a specific character; and historical reviews of the custom.
The people under the masks range in age from 20 to 70, diverse in age, from different walks of life, but unified by a shared desire to provide joy to, and interact, with people - "to brighten their day," as one of the characters puts it. "You become someone else for a couple of hours - adopt the identity of the mask," notes a member of the group. "What a beautiful mission in life," says another, "to make people laugh."