There are two main words used in German for Carnival or Mardi Gras, the pre-Lenten celebration that ends on Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch): the Germanic Fasching and the Latin-based Karneval.
Fasching is the most common word used for Mardi Gras in southern Germany, Bavaria and Austria. This Germanic word dates from the 13th century and the Middle High German word vascganc or vastschnag (Fastenschank, “last [alcoholic] drink before fasting”). The word later joined other German words ending in -ing to become Fasching.
Karneval, is a Latin-based term that comes from carnem levare (“to remove [give up] meat”). The former Roman settlements of Cologne, Bonn and Mainz celebrate Karneval and use that Latin word for the celebration.
It is not just that the names are different, so are the customs. Some of Germany’s best known Karneval celebrations are held in Cologne (Köln), Mainz, Düsseldorf and Munich (München). But Cologne’s Karneval is not really the same as Munich’s Fasching. Germanic Carnival celebrations vary from region to region, with each community often having its own unique traditions. One Swiss city even has its Carnival at a different time than all the others! The Fasnacht event in Basel happens a week after most other Carnivals, starting at 4:00 a.m. on the Monday after Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday). The main event of Karneval in Mainz is the parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). Farther south in Bavaria and Austria, the culmination of Fasching takes place on Shrove Tuesday (Faschingsdienstag), like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. These and other differences reflect the long history and local traditions of the celebration, and they are also seen in the language.
A very important regional distinction is the Carnival Salutation. Around Cologne this is ‘Alaaf’, and almost everywhere else it is ‘Helau’. Never shout ‘Helau’ in Cologne, or Alaaf in Mainz!
Did you know that the biggest Carnival celebration of all of Europe is held in Köln, one of Germany’s oldest cities? It’s true! Not only is it the largest Carnival, but it is also one of the oldest; written records have been traced back to the year 1341.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, amusing plays known as Fastnachtspiele were performed during the pre-Lenten season. Today there are elaborate parades (Umzüge) in the many large and small communities where Karneval is celebrated. The parade in Mainz Rosenmontagsumzug is an event broadcast each year on German television, similar to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York. It features colorful floats with caricatured figures mocking local, national and international politicians and other famous personalities or events.
Another distinction must be made between ‘official’ events and ‘un-organized’ partying. The organized Carnival includes Pomp Conventions, parades, and fancy uniforms, whereas un-organized Carnival is just this: party, party and party.
Whether the celebration is called Fasching, Fastnacht or Karneval, it is a time to let off steam and live it up before the Lenten period that traditionally called for fasting (die Fastenzeit) and sacrifice. It is this fasting tradition that gave the celebration its Fastnacht name (“night before fasting,” “fasting eve”).