Since moving to Germany, I have become a huge fan of German celebrations, like Oktoberfest and Silvester. One celebration that I have never really understood or taken part in, however, is carnival. Growing up in western Canada, I learned about Mardi Gras in my French classes at school and gladly ate through a pile of pancakes on Fat Tuesday, but beyond that, I never really celebrated. I’ve done some research about carnival season here in Germany that I hope clarifies this celebration for you – I know it sure did for me!
In Germany, as soon as Christmas is over and even before the decorations have been put away, Germans start gearing up for carnival, the period of festivities before Lent. Carnival, also known as the “Fifth Season”, begins each year on November 11th at 11:11am and ends right before midnight on Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) the following year. Though the season officially starts in November, celebrations don’t usually begin until after New Year and peak in the week before Ash Wednesday. Carnival parades and parties feature all kinds of costumes, from hand-made to elaborate. Every clothing store, supermarket and drugstore seems to devote an entire section to carnival costumes and masks in January and February each year.
Carnival is also called Karneval, Fasching, or Fastnacht depending on the region or German-speaking country where it is celebrated. For example, in the East and South of Germany, as well as in Austria, carnival is called Fasching. In Franconia (the upper region of the state of Bavaria) and Baden-Württemberg (the state where I currently live in southwest Germany), carnival is known as Fastnacht.
There are two distinct forms of carnival, called Rheinische Fasching and the Schwäbische Fastnacht. The jovial Rheinische Fasching is celebrated in the west of Germany, particularly in the cities of Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Mainz. In Rheinische Fasching, cities hold costume balls and parades and have their own distinct celebration days. For example, Carnival Thursday is called Altweiber (“Old Women’s Day” in Düsseldorf) or Wieverfastelovend (“Women’s Day” in Cologne). This day commemorates the beginning of the female presence during carnival when washer-women revolted back in 1824. On Carnival Thursday, women storm city halls to get the key to the city from the mayor and cut off men’s ties (considered as a symbol of men’s status). The men then wear the stumps of their ties for the rest of the day and get a Bützchen (little kiss) as a form of compensation. Men know to wear their ugliest ties on Carnival Thursday since they know their ties will be at risk!
In contrast, the Schwäbische Fastnacht is celebrated in southwest Germany, German-speaking parts of Switzerland, Alsace, and western Austria. The Schwäbische Fastnacht is a bit grimmer than the Rheinische Fasching as it focuses on hunting out and expelling the evil winter spirits. In this version, you’ll spot a lot of sinister masks and costumes aimed at scaring the spirits away.
Carnival greetings are also distinct depending on the region. In Cologne, the typical greeting during carnival season is “Kölle Alaaf!”, meaning “Cologne above all!” In Mainz, Düsseldorf, Franconia and most other regions, you’ll hear the greeting “Helau!” Be careful not to mix these greetings up or say them in the wrong place!
During carnival season, you’ll find bakeries abundant with jelly-filled donuts (called Kreppel, Krapfen, Berliner or a million other regional names). These traditional carnival treats are aimed at fattening you up before the fasting time of Lent begins. Any excuse to eat a donut is fine by me!
Other than costumes popping up in the weekly circulars or piles of donuts beckoning you from every bakery you pass by, you can tell it’s carnival season in Germany when silly carnival shows called Sitzungen appear on television. Tickets to these live event shows are expensive and highly coveted; the general public sees an airing of the show at a later date in February. All kinds of different carnival shows take place throughout Germany and feature a mix of song, dance, and funny speeches. The speaker steps into a barrel, called a Bütt, to deliver his Büttenrede (a “barrel speech”). These Büttenrede are generally critical and ironic, given in rhyme and focus on the political events that took place during the past year. Politicians in attendance at these shows get made fun of and are forced to smile and take the insults with good humour. After the better gags and insults, the band will play a Tusch, a jokey, carnival-specific tune consisting of two notes. The Tusch has made its way into pop culture to the point where you can hear this tune used in daily life after a good joke or punch line.
What most people associate with carnival season are the colourful parades that take place leading up to Ash Wednesday, culminating on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). During this time, people dress up in their costumes and take to the streets to celebrate. Dancers, marching bands, and floats lead the parade down the streets tossing confetti and candy to the crowds. Some cities, such as Mainz and Cologne, are known for their elaborate, papier–mâché floats that are especially risqué or political. Despite criticism for going too far, parade organizers defend their tradition fiercely and continue celebrating in earnest every year.
Though the parades are mostly fun affairs, you should also watch out for masked tricksters playing jokes on the crowd. Some will pull ponytails or hand out mustard-filled donuts to unsuspecting parade-goers. Before you eagerly bite into a donut at a parade, make sure it’s a sweet one first!
Masked balls and all-night parties take place throughout Germany on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday; oddly this day does not have a special name in German, though in English it’s known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (due to all the gorging that takes place before the fasting period begins). Ash Wednesday marks the end of the frenzied carnival celebrations and the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday.
Now that I have a better grasp on carnival, I hope to celebrate a little myself this year and perhaps attend my first parade in Stuttgart. I’ll be watching out for those mustard-filled donuts, though!
Is carnival celebrated in your country? How do you celebrate? I’d love to hear in the comments below!