Carnival – known as the ‘fifth season’
Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht – the name of the festival and the local traditions involved vary from region to region, but all involve colourful costumes and merrymaking. Generally speaking, Carnival, known as the ‘fifth season’ – as Germany has four seasons –, begins at 11:11 a.m. on November 11th and carries on right through into the spring. It officially ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, the period of fasting. Of course, the actual festivities – the merrymaking, feasting, drinking, parades, floats and outrageous costumes – don’t get underway until the week before Ash Wednesday. This party tradition is widely observed in Germany, especially in the west, even if the religious aspect is not.
The start of Carnival weekend
The Carnival festivities start in earnest on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, with Weiberfastnacht (‘Women’s Fasching’), a day of gender role reversals that is part of an overall Carnival tradition in which established roles and hierarchies are turned on their heads. On Weiberfastnacht, women symbolically storm the town hall – in times past an exclusively male domain – and take charge for the day.
This tradition dates back to 1824 in the Rhineland town of Beuel (now part of Bonn), when a group of washerwomen demonstrated at the town hall in protest against the unfairness of having to work long hours while the menfolk got to go off and celebrate Karneval. One of the quirkier modern Rhineland customs associated with this day is that women reserve the right to put men in their place by cutting off their neckties.
As with Carnival itself, Weiberfastnacht goes by various names in Germany. In Baden-Württemberg it is known as schmotziger Donnerstag, while in Aachen (which, like Cologne, is a stronghold of the Rhineland Karneval tradition) it is known as Fettdonnerstag. Both of these names translate roughly as ‘Fat Thursday’. Meanwhile, in places where Carnival is known as Fasching, this Thursday is known as Altweiberfasching (‘Old Women’s Fasching’).
Customs and traditions of the ‘silly season’
Perhaps the best-known of Germany’s Carnival traditions relates to costume-wearing. Classic costumes include motifs like princes, princesses, jokers, fools, ghosts, pirates, witches and the like, though you’ll also see superheroes and caricatures of political figures, not to mention simply outrageous attire that defies categorisation. As with Halloween in other parts of the world, there will be shops virtually everywhere selling costumes in the lead-up to the festival. You can also make your own, or hire one from a costume-hire service.
What’s with the number eleven?
The short answer is that nobody really knows – but the number eleven has been strongly associated with Carnival ever since the festival’s revival in the 19th century. Some say it’s because eleven symbolises the festival’s theme of equality – two ones standing side by side. Others say it’s because elf, the German word for ‘eleven’, is an acronym for the motto of the French Revolution: Egalité, Literté, Fraternité – ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’. Another explanation is that 11 November marked the end of the active farming season, when peasants and farm labourers would receive their wages and celebrate with abandonment.
Where to celebrate?
Carnival – by whatever name you choose to call it – is celebrated mainly in the west of Germany, especially in the towns and cities along the Rhine, although you will also find Carnival clubs and festivals in places further to the north and east, such as Bremen and Cottbus.
Thanks to the Kölner Karneval, now a world-famous event, Cologne is commonly regarded as Germany’s Carnival capital – but don’t tell that to the good people of Düsseldorf, Aachen or Stuttgart. Many German cities have their own distinct Carnival customs and traditions, which are a source of fierce local pride. So, if you want to experience Carnival, the best thing to do is choose a city and find out in advance what the local customs are.
There are also smaller parades in many districts and villages that are less crowded but worth a visit.
Alaaf or Helau?
Each city has its own distinct customs around Carnival salutations and chants, so, make sure you use the right one, otherwise you may get off-side with the locals. The most commonly heard of these cries are Helau! and Alaaf! which are generally preceded by the name of the city – in the sense of ‘Long live Cologne! (or Düsseldorf, or wherever you happen to be). Here are some of the most important ones:
Cologne: (Kölle) Alaaf!
Bonn, Leverkusen: Alaaf!
Düsseldorf, Mainz, Koblenz: Helau!
In smaller towns, the salutation can be different again, and in border regions you’ll even hear a mix. So, if you’re not sure of the protocol where you are, make sure you do your homework before you head out to celebrate.
The Karnivalssitzungen are held throughout the Carnival season, from November to spring, and include speeches, dance groups, singing, cultural events, acrobatic performances and comedy sketches. The comic acts were traditionally a chance to poke fun at the nobility and ruling classes. Today they mainly target politicians and social issues. Cologne also offers an edgier, cabaret-style alternative form of these events called Stunksitzungen.
The Rose Monday parade
The climax of every Carnival season is marked by the big parades held in cities like Cologne, Mainz and Aachen. Elaborately decorated floats, with designs evoking key events of the preceding months, wend their way through the town, accompanied by marching bands and traditional Funkenmariechen dancers and cheered on by throngs of wondrously costumed spectators.
"I knew that Germans love rules. So it was no surprise to me that with Carnival there is a rule that allows Germans to go wild."
Blame it all on the Nubbel!
In some cities, the Carnival observances on Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday) include the ceremonial burning of a straw doll. The idea is that all the sins committed during the silly season are symbolically laid to the charge of this Nubbel (Cologne), also called Hoppeditz (Düsseldorf), or Bacchus (Ruhr region). In most cases, this involves a ceremonial trial in which this straw scapegoat is charged, convicted, sentenced and set alight to great fanfare. In most places, Faschingsdienstag spells the end of the Carnival observances and festivities.
It’s party time!
If you’re travelling to a Carnival stronghold from out of town to join in the festivities, you should book your trip well in advance, as the trains are usually packed, and accommodation tends to be booked out months ahead.
As you’d expect, the large gatherings of Carnival revellers tend to go hand in hand with a spike in petty theft, so it’s best to go with friends so you can keep an eye on each other.
It’s also a good idea to consult the local council website to find out the starting point and routes of the parades you want to attend. It’s usually worth getting to the starting point early, as these spots can get very busy very quickly.
While it doesn’t cost anything to attend the street parades, you will need to secure tickets in advance for some parties and events.
By now you’ve probably decided you need to experience this Carnival thing for yourself. So, it’s time to go online, plan your trip and study up on the local customs – and then get out there and enjoy the madness.
Alaaf! Helau! And above all, have fun!