Dating back to the Middle Ages, the celebration of Carnival (Karneval or Fasching) — the European relative of Mardi Gras tradition — is a time for eating, drinking and merriment before the solemn days of Lent.
This colorful festival takes place 52 days before Easter, generally ending with a bang before Ash Wednesday.Carnival is celebrated in several regions throughout Germany, the three most popular versions being Karneval in the Rhineland region, Fasching in Southern Germany and Fastenacht in Baden Würrtemberg. All three have different histories and roots.
From Start to End
Carnival season officially starts much earlier, on November 11th at 11:11 am. At this time people celebrate the beginning of what is often referred to as the “fifth” (Carnival) season. In the weeks leading up to the festivities, Carnival clubs meet to discuss upcoming performances, costumes, and parades. The undisputed Carnival capital is Cologne, followed by Düsseldorf and Mainz.
In these cities, Carnival is traditionally kicked off on Thursday with “Women’s Carnival” (Weiberfastnacht). On this unofficial holiday women dress up in costumes and misbehave in harmless ways, thus symbolically taking control for a day. A popular tradition is to cut off men’s ties, leaving only a short stump of this perceived token of male supremacy. In return the male victims are usually rewarded with a peck on the cheek.
No parade is larger than in Cologne: with excitement and anticipation, over 1 million people line up along main street to wait for the parade to pass by – which takes close to five hours. Over 11,000 active members of local carnival clubs march in this 4 mile parade, all dressed up as clowns, witches, wizards, or in military uniforms fashionable during the times of Napoleon. That’s when the parade in Cologne started, in 1823, after Napoleon had been defeated in Europe and French troops had withdrawn from the Rhineland.
The “Rose Monday” floats in the parade are works of art portraying a variety of themes and usually focus on what’s happening in the world; for example, one float may make fun of a contemporary governmental leader or recent political event.
After the parade wild and free-roaming marchers dressed in crazy costumes (Narrenkostümen) gather in the side streets to continue the celebration. Bars stay open through the early hours of morning, and the spirit of Carnival reigns in the streets and public squares, in offices and at home, and above all in places for dancing and drinking.
The day after, Karnevalsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday), marks the last day of the carnival season and is observed with smaller parades and parties in Germany. For carnival enthusiasts in other parts of the world, however, Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in French marks the highlight of the carnival season. In cities such as New Orleans, Venice and Rio de Janeiro cheerful and colorful crowds take over the streets with spectacular parades.
In the Southwest of Germany, along the French Border in Baden-Württemberg, Western Bavaria, the Alsace region, Black Forest and Switzerland, the roots of the Allemannische Fastnacht season, which starts on Three Kings Day, January 6 (Epiphany), date back to the Alemanic tribes of the first millenium A.D. and are more subdued. Costumes have evolved around themes of dark ghosts representing the cold season contrasted by the bright, colorful spirits of spring. These traditional themes symbolize the eager anticipation of the growing season, a time farmers and consumers long for.
Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) marks the end of the year’s craziest “season” and ushers in the solemn weeks of Lent.
To accompany this great fun, street vendors offer simple German fare to keep Carnival enthusiasts happy. On every corner one can buy fresh pretzels, hot sausages (Bratwurst) or Krapfen, the German answer to donuts, and enjoy mugs of hot-spiced wine (Glühwein) which helps the Carnival crowd stay warm.