This year, starting on the 24th of February and continuing till the 2nd of March is the time of German Street Carnival, a unique and ‘grand, mad and unforgettable event’ (theculturetrip.com).
Though COVID will once again prevent Carnival being celebrated as raucously as in non-pandemic times, the ‘Fifth Season’ is still a much loved and celebrated time in this country.
What is Carnival?
Carnival (Karneval in German) goes by different names including Fastnachtzeit and Fasching (Bavaria). All the names are derived from the Latin expression ‘carne valis’…literally ‘good-bye meat’. So Carnival ends on Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of the Catholic time of Lent. Lent is a 40 day period of abstinence prior to Easter. Many Catholics abstain from eating meat, sweets or drinking alcohol during this period.
The Carnival season is referred to as a ‘session’. Each session has a theme, a Jester, a Prince and Princess plus other supporting characters, differing by region. The session actually begins with the ‘awakening’ of the Jester and the public proclamation of the session’s Prince and Princess. The date of the presentation is always 11.11 at 11:11 in the morning. On this day, Carnival fans don silly hats and costumes to celebrate the beginning of the Carnival season with their new Regents. There are lots of parties, beer flows generously and the fans or ‘Jecken’ sing and sway to Carnival songs.
In areas that celebrate the Fastnachtzeit, the Carnival season gets into swing after Epiphany on the 6th of January. From this point until the beginning of Street Carnival, the Regents and their entourages are busy with Carnival activities every day. Much of their work is charitable, like visiting nursing homes, schools and kindergartens. They also attend parties and ‘Büttnerreden’ speaking events (special Carnival parties with sharp-tongued, humorous speakers). This period ends in the Street Carnival, a six day party that ends on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In some parts of Germany, Carnival is a more solemn affair, particularly in the South. But in Rhineland it is a big, crazy event where Germany lets down its hair and has fun.
Street Carnival in Rhineland
The Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday is the kick off for Street Carnival. It is called ‘Altweiber’, which means Women’s Carnival. On this day, the women rule! They dress up in costumes, storm the town hall and cut off the ties of the reigning mayor and other male officials in the town. The tradition is also practiced in businesses. Every man in an office building knows he better have an old tie handy on the day of Altweiber!
By the evening, there is a festive sense of non-stop party. Cologne is known as the stronghold of Street Carnival, with over one million people celebrating every year. The weekend continues with pub crawls, parties, masked balls and lots of swaying to Carnival songs. People traditionally indulge in jelly doughnuts (Berliner) and fried dough (Krapfen) in addition to the usual fare of sausages, fries, schnitzels and so on. Families dress up and parade their costumes. Children have parties and enjoy running around with their friends during local parades. Floats roll through the villages and candies are thrown out to the public. Everyone shouts their approval with a ‘fool’s cry’, which is a ‘senseless word hollered in chorus every few minutes for no good reason’ (theculturetrip.com). These words differ by region and include: Kölle Alaaf! (Cologne), Helau (Düsseldorf), Ahoi! (Northern Germany) and Hajo (source n.a.) among others. It is an infectious atmosphere!
The celebrations culminate in the Rosenmontag Parade on Monday. The parade includes fantastic floats, some of which are politically so poignant that they make the news in foreign countries. Satire and social commentary are very important components of Street Carnival. In addition to the floats, the ‘Büttnerredner’ (satirical speakers) and ‘Narren’ (Jesters) are sharp-witted social and political commentators who express the frustrations and anger of the common folk in their humorous diatribes during Street Carnival.
On Ash Wednesday ‘ist alles vorbei’ (it’s all over). The session ends with the carrying of the Jester back to his grave, or in some places he is burned in effigy. The Altweiber women all dress in black and weep inconsolably (crocodile tears!). And so the time of abstinence begins and Carnival is over until the Jester awakes again a year later to conduct a new round of pranks and fun-poking, and the common people will rule once again for a few fantastic days.