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Carnival in Germany

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Carnival masks against the German flag

Once a year the reputation of Germans as an orderly, obedient, sober, rational and humourless people gets severely damaged. The time of year in question is known as the 'fifth season' and people everywhere go barking mad, so it seems. However, Carnival divides Germans into those who absolutely hate it and those who eagerly make fools out of themselves.

The Carnival Divide

Opponents say that it's a 'timed' event and enjoying oneself on command is not funny at all. Furthermore, they see no point in all the rules which have to be strictly followed. The opponents are simply ignored by the members of the fanatic fraction who put enormous effort into their guises, speeches, and performances. Their parole is:

Anyone who is not a fool at Carnival is foolish for the rest of the year.

The division runs across the whole population but is also related to geography; as a rule of thumb, fanatics can be found wherever wine is grown. This is true for the Rhine valley from Constance up to Düsseldorf and includes all rivers which empty into it, namely Mosel, Neckar, Ahr, and the Main. It is also true for Saxony. Catholic regions clearly stand out since Martin Luther forbade Carnival. There are some 4000 clubs which are dispersed all over Germany with Protestants celebrating as much as Catholics.

Regional differences are most obvious through the different names for Carnival. Fasenacht, Fosenocht, Fasteleer, Fastelovvend, Fastelabend and Fastnacht are the various names given to the night/evening before Lent, reflected in different local idioms. These names refer to the whole day preceding the holiday, just like Christmas Eve denotes the day before Christmas.

Fasching in Austria and Bavaria comes from vastschank which roughly translates as 'pouring out the casks before Lent'. Dictionaries feature the words Fastnacht and Karneval as elements of proper German.

A very important regional distinction is the Carnival Salutation. Around Cologne this is Alaaf, and almost everywhere else it is Helau. However, There are lots more regional salutations like Ahoi, Wau Wau, the Alemannic Narri-Narro, Escha!, Hu-Hu-Hu and so on.

Another distinction must be made between official events and un-organised partying. The organised Carnival includes Pomp Conventions, parades, and fancy uniforms, whereas un-organised Carnival is just party, party, party.


Carnival can be traced back into heathenish times. It started as an event to drive out the winter and the ghosts of darkness who had begun to lose their powers as the sun started to warm up in springtime. This background is still most obvious in the regions formerly inhabited by the Alemannen1 tribe, namely around Basel and in southern Germany. Rituals in these areas include processions ('parade' would not be the right word here) where people generate lots of noise and masquerade with horrifying face masks in order to scare away the ghosts of winter and at the same time avoid their revenge. It was also a festivity to honour the Goddess Freya and to celebrate fertility with the beginning of spring. The modern image of the Narrenschiff (the jester's ship) may hark back to a memory of Goddess Isis, whose ship was towed through villages in the processions.

Early missionaires tried to shift the meaning of this celebration to a more Christian ritual, and so the Carnival came to mark the beginning of Lent - a time of reflection and abstinence which lasts until Easter where people would abstain from eating flesh, eggs, milk, and any food made thereof. Devout Catholics still do this every year. Celibacy was also to be practiced during Lent, but history has proven that this was not taken overly seriously by the masses. It was only natural that the last opportunity to partake of these foods and activities became an unrivalled celebration. This is the origin of the alias name Karneval as it is derived from Latin carne vale, meaning 'farewell to meat'2. In the Middle Ages, this command was not too difficult to follow because food stocks usually were expended by this time of year, and it was a good idea to consume the remaining stocks which would most likely start to rot in the following weeks.

Another tradition is Starkbier (stout). This is a very potent beer brewed by the monks at this time for use during Lent when they were not allowed to eat. They made up for the calories by drinking this darker, richer beer. The famous Starkbier-Anstich (celebration of opening the first Starkbier keg) at the Nockherberg facility in Munich is a story in itself...

As time went by, Fastnacht also became an opportunity for common people to hold up the mirror to their lords, which followed the tradition of the Hofnarr or Court Jester, the well-known fool at the side of a king who was allowed to tell every truth without being punished, provided his criticism was disguised as a joke. His costume and insignia are still one of the favourite disguises worn for the celebration.

In the Lower Rhine area a whole lot more has been blended into Carnival. Cologne was once occupied by the Romans who celebrated their Saturnalia in December and Lupercalia in February. Masquerades, fancy costumes and parades were part of both these events. The invasions from the French in 1784 and the Prussians in 1815 put an end to Carnival; this brought in an element of rebellion and parody of Prussian militarism, represented not only in the Carnival Honour Guard, but also the Narrhallamarsch3, fancy uniforms and the use of the left hand in the Carnival salutation.

During the Nazi regime, Fastnacht almost completely fell by the wayside. Not only was it forbidden for men to disguise themselves as women, but the Nazis didn't like the element of rebellion. Political satire, as contained in Carnival speeches, would have brought the speaker into a concentration camp very soon. After all, there wasn't much reason for celebrating anyway.

These days you can see both sides of Fastnacht, with the 'foolish' aspect prevailing along the Lower Rhine, and the more serious Alemannenfastnacht face showing through in southern areas. And the 'party' is everywhere.

The Carnival Calendar

  • 11 November marks the beginning of the fifth season. All over the country, Carnival clubs designate their Princes and Princesses, city halls are being 'stormed' and city mayors 'overthrown' by hordes of jesters who demand to be handed over the (symbolic) keys of the city. Silence sets in again after this day, but preparations for the 'hot season' start everywhere.

  • 1 January or 6 Jan is the 'real' beginning of the fifth season. From now on parades and conventions are being held, with the frequency of events slowly increasing until Shrove Monday (the Monday preceding Shrove Tuesday).

  • Dirty Thursday (Schmutziger Donnerstag, Fettdonnerstag, Unsinniger Donnerstag, Weiberfastnacht). This day is called 'dirty' because Schmutz (dirt) is the Alemannic word for 'fat' and it's the day to make Fastnachtskrapfen or Fasnetskiechle which are kind of doughnuts which are fried in fat. From 11.11am until Shrove Tuesday, Cologne is governed by Prince Carnival.

    The recipe for the doughnuts is:


    • 500ml cream
    • 2 eggs
    • 1tbsp sugar
    • salt
    • 200g flour
    • 1.5 litres oil to deep fry
    • 3tbsp powdered sugar


    1. Beat cream and eggs, add the sugar and salt, sift the flour and add it to the liquid tablespoon by tablespoon.

    2. Knead the dough with your hands and let it rest for an hour, covered with a wet dish towel.

    3. Divide the mixture into 12 pieces and use a rolling pin to form the pieces as thin as possible. Heat the oil (180°C) and bake the dough for one minute on each side. Sprinkle with sugar.

    During this time, men are well advised to wear an old tie, as women are allowed to cut them in half in exchange for a kiss. 'Mercy' is a word that women don't know on this day, as many tourists from abroad can tell. The trophies, ie the lower halves of the ties, are carried around and then nailed to walls. 'Castrated' men are supposed to wear the remains of their tie with pride on their faces. The humourless fraction is recognisable by wearing a pullover on this day.

    In cities along the Rhine it is normal to start partying from this Thursday through to midnight on Lent Tuesday without sobering up, and many a driving license is confiscated for this very reason.

  • Shrove Monday is the culmination point as far as 'official' events are concerned. Rosenmontagszüge (Shrove Monday parades) attract millions of visitors on the streets. German TV stations devote the day to broadcasting these parades into the homes of even more millions of people.

    For some not too obscure reason, this day is also called 'Horny Monday'. It is accepted in Cologne (the epicentre of this four-day party marathon) that you can sleep with anyone during this time, even if you're married to someone else. Everybody does it. They claim.

    In Cologne, Düsseldorf and surrounding cities, everything is shut. It is an official day off in federal states with a majority Catholic population. In other states there's a stupendous number of people who call in sick for the day.

  • Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras is theFastnacht as it has been celebrated since the Middle Ages. Everywhere the Prince and Princess will move into city hall and govern until midnight. Exactly at the stroke of midnight, the whole event is over and not to be thought of until 11 November.

  • Ash Wednesday is the day for all to return back to normal mode and cure their enormous hangovers. An awful lot of songs centre around the abrupt ending and express deep regret at this. Incidentally, salted herring is the dish of the day.

    This is also the day when the ceremony of washing your purse is to be celebrated; the rationale being that it is empty anyway by then.

The Magic Number

The number 11 plays a key role in Carnival:

  • Within a Carnival club, the Council of Eleven (Elferrat) is in charge of everything, and they preside at the conventions. For unknown reasons the Elferrat is a male-dominated world.

  • Carnival starts at precisely 11.11am on 11 November (ie, 11/11/11/11) each year.

  • A convention must not start at any other time than 11 minutes past the hour.

  • If a Carnival Club has a jubilee to celebrate, it celebrates multiples of 11 rather than the standard 10, 25 etc.

There are differing opinions about the origin of 11 as the fool's number; be it that an 11th commandment was felt to be missing ('11: Ye shall be a fool'), or be it that those '1's represent normal mortals and their lords and counts side by side on the same level. The German word for 11, elf, could also be taken as an abbreviation for the motto Ey Lustig Fröhlich ('Hey, funny and cheerful'), or for Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité, which would be a pun on the French occupation of 1784.

Schwäbisch-Alemannische Fastnacht

This type of Carnival, also known as Fasnet, is quite different from anywhere else and only vaguely similar to the Basler Fassnacht in Switzerland. Some traditions are obviously close to the very old rite of driving out the ghosts of winter, using horrifying disguises and lots of noise. Another element of the Fasnet is to play tricks (sometimes of questionable taste) on the visitors which serves to make it clear to everybody that they are only fools. Hence also the mirror as one of the jester's insignias.

Every town's Carnival Guild has one or more prominent figures (the Häs, for example) which form the centre of their procession. This figure can resemble anything including a wolf, a devil, a red-eyed ugly fantasy creature clothed in a bunch of straw, or a trunk from a tree with big eyes and ears. Items for making terrible noises include bells of all sizes, whips, or pieces of wood clung together.

Some participants in the procession carry a broom with which they try to touch bystanders, sometimes after having swept it through the dirt of the road. Others use long sticks and try to capture people's hats. The Häs, or some of his companions, are often equipped with a wooden stick to which a piece of rope and a hog's bladder are attached. This bladder (the Saubloder) is filled with peas and is more or less made to violently connect with the heads of unsuspecting visitors, preferably females4. The thought behind this rite has vanished in the darkness of history, but it is commonly believed that it was meant to foster fertility. Other interpretations try to explain it as the attempt to literally punch the wisdom into people that they are made of perishable flesh, or that they are empty hulls. This latter explanation is based on words like the French fou and the English fool which are derived from Latin follis, meaning 'empty bag'.

The Fasnet will often be finished by burning or burying a symbol which either represents winter or the Fasnet itself.

A Typical Pomp Convention...

... of course starts at 11 past the hour with the opening address from the President of the Elferrat, who is Master of Ceremonies as well. He's also responsible for the welcome addresses to politicians and other honourable people who sit dispersed among the guests. The evening is a colourful mixture of speeches, ballet-like performances, songs, and parodies.

Speakers are introduced by the Master of Ceremonies and his mandatory question to the public: Wolle mer'se roi losse ('Are we going to let them in?') is frequently quoted in everyday life.

Speeches must rhyme and have to be given from out of a cask (die Bütt). Language is the local idiom, hence these speeches aren't good opportunities for learning German. There are two types of speeches: political satire (the areas around Mainz are famous for these), and the purely jokey ones which cover all aspects of life and which are prevalent on the Lower Rhine. The following is a good example of one such speech:

The speaker enters the Bütt to the sounds of the Narrhallamarsch.

Se Caanevell, sis is a feast
Ver trabbel is to be found
If you haven't got a nouse at least
and akt like a zilly klown!

(the band) taTäääh, taTäääh, taTäääh

This type of speech is supposed to be hilariously funny, but it's impossible to miss a joke since a Tusch (tatäääh) is played by the Kapelle (the band, dressed in fancy uniforms) whenever the audience is expected to be laughing.

Speakers switch places to another 'Narrhallamarsch!' after the Master of Ceremonies has asked his mandatory question.

The political type of speech reviews the past year and turns the tables on the politicians in an ironical and sarcastic way. Very often these speeches are real marvels of humour, truth and philosophy and indeed continue the tradition of the Crown Jester.

'Wolle mer'se roi losse? -Narrhallamarsch!'

Becoming a Funkenmariechen is one of the few possibilities for females to actively participate in a pomp convention. The usual dress for them consists of a hat, jacket and a really short skirt. All of which are of the same colour (red or blue), trimmed with white fluffy material and imitate the men's carnival uniforms. The Funkenmariechen then jump about on stage, throwing their legs about in a Can Can-like fashion.

Wolle mer'se roi losse? Narrhallamarsch!

Songs are of the Schlager variety, they also have some funny text, but they mainly serve for synchronizing the Schunkeln (hooking elbows with one's neighbours and swaying right-left-right-...) of the guests. Anything written in 3/4 time will do, and if a song is written in 2/4 or 4/4 the band just change it to fit.


Rosenmontagszug (Shrove Monday Parade)

Here's a short guide on how to organise a rather decent parade yourself:

Pick up some 70 trucks, 300 horses, 122 bands and 1,509,300 -people and have some kilometres of road handy. Have the trucks decorated to resemble ships, castles, monsters and anything else you might fancy, which will cost you three weeks and around 10,000DM per truck. Social or political references are widely welcomed for providing inspiration. Sprinkle some 9000 people over the trucks, situate 300 in the proper position on the horses and have the rest form 122 bands. Spread the remaining 1,500,000 people along the road, disguise them and paint their faces in all kinds of decor, and hand out alcoholic drinks to the ones eligible. Mix the trucks and bands and have them march along the road making as much noise as possible. To spur on the ones along the road let the people on the trucks throw bonbons (referred to as Kamelle), chocolate, confetti, flowers, Blutwurst (black pudding) and other tidbits (a total payload of 150 metric tons should do the trick) when the audience cheers the appropriate parole (eg, 'Meenz is Meenz!' or 'Oche Alaaf!'). A study estimated that the 1997 Rosenmontagszug in Mainz generated an overall turnover of 49 million DM.

After the trucks and bands have trekked down the road and the booze handed out to the public is gone, everybody will head off for a little party, preferably connected to a little physical exercise. Exercising is accompanied by special songs which are (luckily) only heard during Carnival and is usually achieved by either Schunkeln or Polonaise (a Conga-type of entertainment where grab the shoulders of a person from behind, start snaking your way through the room and picking up more people as you go along) and singing. Some of the silly songs date back over 50 years.

In the case that you want to sleep on Shrove Monday, forget it. Don't bother with the police, anybody you could reach there is someone who would love to be at one of the parties as well.

Some Proudly Cherished Regional Specialties

The following list is by no means meant to be complete...


Aachen is where the Orden Wider Den Tierischen Ernst (Medal Against Deadly Seriousness), one of the very few medals awarded not for something but against, is granted every year. And receiving it is arguably the highest honour in Carnival. This medal came into existence in 1950, when the British Military Prosecutor in charge, JA Dugdale, released a prisoner during a time Dugdale considered the Carnival - the 'highest public holiday of the Rhineland'. This was taken as a deed worthy of thanks and praise and Dugdale came to be the first person to be awarded the Order. At the time it caused a little stir back in Britain as Germans were not considered to be the ones to award medals to British Occupation Forces.

The medal was also bestowed on Ephraim Kishon (Israeli writer) in 1978; Johannes Rau (German President) in 1986; Ruud Lubbers (Dutch Head of Government) in 1993 and John Kornblum (Ambassador of the USA) in 1999. The commendation is always to be held by the last year's nominee.


Berlin has a party here and there, but doesn't count as one of the epicentres. However, when the German government moved over from Bonn they brought along a huge amount of people from the Rhine area who keep the candle burning. Berliners take pride in their demonstrations; the Love parade is one example.

Upper Bavaria

Some places in Upper Bavaria feature Hirschenrennen or Schnablerrennen, which are fun races of disguised people sliding downhill on oversized sleighs.


Cologne has yet another peculiarity in that it has a triumvirate presiding. The Trifolium consists of the Prince, the Peasant and the Virgin. The 'virgin' is a male in the gown of a woman who has been shaved; nobody is supposed to ask questions about his virginity.


Munich is more on the party side of Carnival, with a big street party on Sunday before Shrove Tuesday. A must-see is the Tanz der Marktfrauen - dancing vegetable mongers from the Viktualienmarkt food market - on Shrove Tuesday.

The Technical University of Munich features a (not so serious) Shrove Monday Lecture every year. An example would be someone talking about the effects of fermented maltosis on the inner workings of the brains of disguised people.

The city mayor makes a big ceremony out of washing the city's purse on Ash Wednesday, although the Stadtsäckel is notoriously empty throughout the year.

1That's where the French Allemagne meaning 'Germany' comes from.2Other sources identify Carnelevarium as the origin, meaning quite the same: removal of meat.3A march which is played whenever a speaker enters or leaves the stage on a convention. Narr means jester, and Narrhalla is the jesters' heaven, and a pun on Walhalla which was Odin/Wotan's heaven in German mythology.4The Saubloder trick is known in Belgium as well.

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