If you have been in Germany for a few months at least, you are probably wondering about the various festivals and holidays that are celebrated and how come each is feted differently. Especially in the winter and holiday season, there are numerous unique festivals that are adhered to each year. The most recent celebration is Fasching, which was celebrated in the second week of February. Fasching is also known as Karneval in the western parts of Germany, where one of the (if not THE) biggest carnival procession takes place in Cologne.
This year in my town, Bayreuth, the Fasching procession was more colourful than ever, with numerous groups dressed up in various outfits forming part of the parade and dishing out sweets and other goodies. The lively atmosphere in the air was invigorating, and the fact that the sun was out added to the merriment. I was almost the odd one out, not dressed in a fancy costume or sporting a painted face. Bayreuth being a relatively quiet city, it was exciting to see just how many people turned up to line the streets and observe the parade and cheer it on. One amusing moment was when a fierce-looking ‘witch’ on a float grabbed a handful of sweets and threw them into the crowd, only to suddenly get a painful expression on her face and then start nursing her hand – apparently she had broken a nail or something…….I guess even ‘witches’ are not exempt from some bad luck during carnival. Another float that caught my eye was a pharmaceutical (?) group whose members were all in various stages of being bandaged up, looking more in need of a doctor than offering medical services – but instead of handing out sweets, they handed out medical pamphlets. Talk of a new twist to health communication! To crown it all, over coffee with some Bavarian friends, they informed me that they were looking forward to the strong beer season, which begins the day immediately after the Fasching celebrations. All this enthusiasm got me curious to find out exactly what we were celebrating.
As it turns out, Fasching and Karneval do not have exactly the same meaning but they do share in common the forms of celebration attached to them. A quick look at history books outlines the festival as being the people’s protest against their rulers – a special time when ordinary citizens could put on masks and make fun of the nobles without fear of reprisal, to the extent of ‘electing’ a new ‘prince’ and ‘princess’. Other traditions depict it as being one last time to eat, be naughty and make merry before starting the Christian fasting season, while others tie it to ushering out the winter season and welcoming the spring. Regardless of exact origin, the celebrations often involve dressing up and parading through the city, as well as making fun of political figures.
The carnival season starts on 11.11 (11th of November), but only peaks on a few specific days in the first quarter of the year. The exact dates are not fixed, but rather, are counted backwards from Easter, whose exact date varies each year. The highlight of the season is the week that culminates in Ash Wednesday. (Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, which refers to the season of 40 days of reflection and moderation that come before Easter in the Christian calendar.) The interesting twist is that Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of the strong beer season in Bavaria.
Each of the days of the week leading up to Ash Wednesday in Germany has a unique name, starting with ‘Fat/Greasy/Women’s’ Thursday, ‘Sooty’ Friday, ‘Carnation’ Saturday, ‘Tulip’ Sunday, ‘Rose’ Monday, and ‘Shrove’ Tuesday, all of which have specific traditions tied to them. Among the most amusing of these is the Thursday where the women go around cutting off men’s ties and getting kisses.
How about that for an interesting celebration! If you are in Germany and didn’t attend Fasching or Karneval this year, make a point of attending it next year, it is definitely worth a look.