Germans call the pre-Lenten Carnival season “die närrische Saison” (the foolish season) or “die fünfte Jahreszeit” (the fifth season.) Except for Munich’s Oktoberfest, it is the one time of the year when many people of Germanic backgrounds, normally serious, loosen up and go a little wild. Fastnacht or Karneval is a “movable feast” that depends on the date of Easter. The official start of the Fasching season is either January 7 (the day after Ephiphany,) or the 11th day of the 11th month, depending on the region. That gives the Carnival guilds three to four months to organize each year’s events (Carnival balls, parades, royalty, etc.) leading up to the big bash in the week before Ash Wednesday, when the Lenten season (die Fastenzeit) begins.
Carnival in Rio is probably the world’s most famous. In the U.S., New Orleans is well known for Mardi Gras. But wider spread in almost all of the Catholic regions and cities across the German-speaking world, and the rest of Europe, Mardi Gras is celebrated in a big way. Only a few Protestant areas in northern and eastern Germany also observe Karneval. Some of Germany’s best known celebrations are held in Cologne (Köln), Mainz, Munich (München) and Rottweil. But Cologne’s Karneval is not really the same as Munich’s Fasching. Germanic Carnival celebrations vary from region to region, sometimes even taking place at different times! These differences reflect the long history and local traditions of the celebration and they are also seen in the language. Fastnacht is related to the Germanic word “fasten” (to fast, abstain from eating). Karneval is related to the Latin “carnem levare” (to remove meat). It is this fasting tradition that gave the celebration its Fastnacht name (“night before fasting”).
Carnival or Mardi Gras goes by many names in Germany, depending on the region and dialect:
- Fastnacht around the city of Mainz (Baden and Switzerland)
- Fasnet in Swabia (south-west region of Germany)
- Fosnat in Franconia (northern Bavaria)
- Fasching around the city of Munchen (also in Austria, Bavaria and Berlin)
- Fasteleer or Fastelofvend: Karneval in Cologne.
Along the Rhine every town has a “Prinz” and “Prinzessin” (prince and princess) who command a uniformed guard, the “Prinzengarde” (prince’s guard). The biggest and zaniest Rhine Karneval is held in Köln (Cologne). The first written record of the Köln carnival is from the year 1341. Köln has the Dreigestirn (three Stars): the Carnival Prince, known as “Seine Tollität” (His Craziness), the “Kölnische Bauer” (Cologne Peasant), and the “Kölnische Jungfraü” (Cologne Virgin), portrayed by a man.
Karneval officially starts am elften elften, elf Uhr elf (11th November at 11:11am) and continues in a fairly low-key way for about three months before the Tolle Tage (Crazy Days) which climax on Rosenmontag, the 42nd day before Easter. In Köln a huge party Weiberfastnacht (women’s carnival night) starts on the Thursday before Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), and it is tradition that women are allowed to cut off the tie of any man within reach, and to kiss any man they want to. In Düsseldorf, on Carnival Thursday, the women (called Möhnen) storm the City Council Offices to capture the Mayor and take over the administration of the City for the night and that is the official opening of the street carnival in the old city. This Thursday also signals the beginning of the five days of Carnival with nearly 50 processions leading up to Monday’s Rose Monday Parade.
The main event of Karneval in Köln is the parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday,) which is an event broadcast each year on German television, similar to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York. About 1.5 million people go to the Rosenmontag parade dressed in costume to cheer their royalties and friends on floats. For the many Karneval associations their time and effort has gone into constructing their floats for the Rosenmontag parade. The floats are not only designed to be beautiful but also represent satirical, political and traditional topics. As the floats pass by, the costumed revelers aboard shower the street crowds with sweets while they sing the many old Karneval songs.
The Tanz Mariechen, (acrobatic dancing troupes of girls) entertain the crowds as part of the parade. In the parade the Carnival Prince has royal bodyguards, who are dressed in uniforms of the early 1800’s. The Prinzengarde (prince’s bodyguards) remind the crowd of the city’s tradition of anti-militarism. This includes disobeying orders by turning in the wrong direction and stuffing flowers into rifle-barrels.
Further south, in Bavaria and Austria, the culmination of Fasching takes place on Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday), like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with the Nubbelverbrennung (burning the spirit of carnival to atone for the sins committed during the carnival session.) At this time the merrymaking and foolishness comes to a sudden halt, yielding to the observation of Lent.