Fasching or Fasnacht is the Southern German and Austrian version of Mardi-Gras. It is a pre-Lenten celebration that goes on between the Epiphany (Jan. 6th) and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). While the origins are unknown, the tradition began as far back as at least the middle ages.
In Tyrol, Austria the villages throughout the countryside have unique festivities and celebrations. Many of the villages have their own Fasnacht clubs. These clubs, true to medieval traditions consist of only men. Women however do a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes work. For example, elaborate costumes (each wearing a hand-carved and painted wooden mask) and floats are prepared for the event. Along with the masks, many characters wear ornate headdresses that in some cases extend three feet above their head. Many of the characters represent a season of the year with the idea of warding off winter and welcoming spring.
There are many more Mardi-Gras type celebrations in various locations throughout Europe. Depending on the region, many wear the hand-carved and painted masks along with a costume while other regions do not wear a mask but do dress in costume.
In many Alpine villages of southwestern Germany and Austria the tradition of Krampus and Perchten thrives. Both Krampus and Perchten costumes are quite elaborate. They wear hand-carved and painted Satin-like masks with horns protruding from them. They also wear ragged fur coats, dangling chains and cowbells.
Krampus is a scary figure who appears with St. Nicholas on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6th). Often there are many Krampus that parade through the villages which bring about a mixture of horror, awe and amusement. After inquiring with the parents about the child's behavior, St. Nicholas hands out gifts to the children who have been good throughout the year. Krampus' role is to punish the bad ones, or at least scare them back onto the path of virtue.
In January Perchten—no relation to Krampus but similar in appearance—parade through the Alpine villages in order to punish villains, drive away evil spirits and even ward off the winter season itself.
In the 15th century, statues of nativity figures began to be displayed in churches.
In the 17th century Nativity sets began to appear in the homes of noble families.
In the 18th century nativity sets began to appear within the general public. A sort of competition was held each year among the nobles to see who had the most valuable collection. Characters including all classes of people were now portrayed conducting their typical daily routines. Even the local scenery was beginning to be employed. Many nativity sets are now created to look as if the scene is local in order for the people to better relate to the nativity.
Today, many people traditionally add a new figure every year to their set. In Europe there are numerous nativity clubs that build and display their sets at Christmas time. The materials used to make the figures are as varied as the regions they come from. Examples are carved wood, terra-cotta, marble, ivory, etc.