Mardi Gras at Cerknica is one of the most popular and well-known Mardi Gras (Pust) carnivals in Slovenia. It consists of a week-long programme of events that commemorate the upcoming spring and feature various festivities and re-enactments of traditional rituals such as the burning of the Pust figure. The carnival’s main attraction is a procession featuring numerous masked participants and giant papier-mâché sculptures of witches and monsters.
The timing of the carnival moves from year to year. Starting on Thursday, it ends a week later on Ash Wednesday – the day that marks the start of the 40-days of fasting preceding Easter.
The Mardi Gras celebrations have a long history in Slovenia (as they do in most of Europe), with the particular manifestations diverging from region to region. Many of them – such as Kurentovanje in Ptuj and the Cerkljanska Laufarija in Cerkno – have very unique and ancient traditions of costumes and customs.
The Cerknica carnival, as we know it today, only started to develop in the years after WWII, when the local rites of driving away winter were gradually joined by masquerades for children and a tradition of satirically-tinged costumes alludal to political and current events. The official birth of this particular festival is considered to be 1975, the year when the Cerknica Mardi Gras Society (Pustno društvo Cerknica) was established. This society cares for the organisation and is of prime importance especially due to the fact that they create, develop and store the giant figures used in the procession.
The festivities start on Thursday, when the traditional rite of “sowing the hag” takes place. This is also the day when the town is supposedly given over to Butalci, comical and outrageously stupid figures taken from a series of famous satirical novels by Fran Milčinski (1867–1932) about the made-up town Butale. Its residents play a strong part in the upcoming days of the festival.
With the main events being the Saturday and Sunday processions (attracting thousand of visitors from around Slovenia), the whole thing finishes on Wednesday, when Pust (an anthropomorphic representation of winter) is ritually burned and thrown into the river.
The procession features numerous groups of masked people and giant papier-mâché sculptures (of which many were created by the painter and sculptor Milan Rot). These include the witch Uršula (the mascot of the festival who according to folklore resides in a cave on Slivnica, a hill overlooking Cerknica), the devil and his herd of dormice, a dragon, the Water-man, and so on. Many of them allude to well-known figures from the Slovene literary tradition.