A definitive guide to carnival in Germany
It may have officially started at 11.11am on November 11, but carnival in Germany gets into full swing this week, starting with Fat Thursday (Weiberfastnacht) on February 24. But what exactly is carnival? Where does Karneval end and Fasching begin? And where, now we’re on the subject, does Fastnacht come in?
If you’ve ever wondered what is being celebrated during the “crazy days” in the lead-up to Lent, read on to discover everything you need to know about Germany’s fifth season in our definitive guide to carnival in Germany.
What is carnival?
Carnival, celebrated all over Europe as well as in various other predominantly Christian countries, is a festive season that occurs in the lead-up to Lent and has been marked since at least medieval times. It is generally characterised as a period of feasting and celebration.
While local traditions vary between countries and regions, the celebrations almost universally feature public events such as parades and street parties, costumes and masks, and plenty of food and drink.
A brief history of carnival in Germany
The carnival tradition, although ostensibly a Catholic one, actually has its origins in the pagan religions that existed before the arrival of Christianity: from the Romans, who marked the onset of spring with a boozy, raucous festival in honour their wine god Dionysus, to Germanic tribes who celebrated the passing of winter with heathen rituals to eliminate dark and evil spirits.
When Germany was Christianised, these heathen customs were adopted by the church and gradually developed into the carnival we know today. Indeed, this period of feasting and merriment tied in nicely with a different Christian custom: Lent.
Carnival came to be seen as a "last party" of eating, drinking and indulgence, before the 40 days of fasting, abstinence and self-reflection began. The very word carnival reflects this: "carne vale" means, "Farewell to meat"!
During this period, rules were reversed and the ridiculous and unimaginable were accepted. Drunkenness and partying were sanctioned, the figure of the fool or clown was respected and figures of authority were openly mocked. During the Middle Ages, a prince and princess were selected from among the peasants to rule the country. They were paraded through the streets, throwing food and wine to bystanders.
Many of these customs inform carnival celebrations in Germany today. While parades, drunkenness and showers of sweets remain a constant fixture, the only major difference nowadays is that most people seem to have forgotten about the post-carnival fasting part!
Events during Carnival
Carnival season officially begins on November 11 at precisely 11 minutes past 11 in the morning. After that, there's relatively little carnival celebration to be seen until the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, when things really get going. Each of these days has a special name, as well as their own special traditions. While not officially recognised as a public holiday, in certain areas carnival is treated as an unofficial holiday, and you might find that some businesses shut up shop to join in the celebrations.
Fat Thursday (Weiberfastnacht)
The final carnival week begins with the Weiberfastnacht (literally, Women's Carnival) on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. This is a day for the ladies and sees costumed women take to the streets and perform cheeky misbehaviours like cutting off men's ties (the men are rewarded with a kiss). After a lot of alcohol and good food, the day ends with parties and masked balls.
The carnival weekend is a pleasurable continuation of the intoxicated festivities of the day before. Drinking traditional German drinks such as Frühschoppen (an early morning drink) and Glühwein, is an absolute must - it is February, after all, and you'll probably need some help staying warm in this weather! This weekend is also no stranger to parties and more formal balls.
Rose Monday (Rosenmontag)
Rose Monday - the main spectacle of carnival - gives a fresh start to those nursing hangovers from their weekend antics. On this day, performers, dancers and marching bands take over the streets, tossing sweets and tulips to the crowds.
The day also has a strong emphasis on parody and satire, reflecting carnival's roots as a period of mockery, with the parade floats often depicting brutally accurate caricatures of politicians and other famous personalities.
Shrove Tuesday (Veilchendienstag)
"Mardi Gras" might be considered the high point of carnival in other parts of Europe, but in Germany Shrove Tuesday represents the last day of carnival and consequently is a bit quieter than others. The main activity on this day is the burning of the life-size straw figure (Nubbel) at the end of the day. The Nubbel symbolises all the sins committed during carnival season. Once it is burnt, all those sins are forgiven.
Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch)
Ash Wednesday marks the end of carnival and the first day of fasting. The religious go to church and receive an ash cross on their forehead. The fast lasts until Easter Sunday.
Regional variations of carnival (Karneval, Fastnacht & Fasching)
There are three main variations of carnival in German-speaking countries: The Rhenish Carnival (Karneval), the Swabian-Alemannic Carnival (Fastnacht), and Fasching, which is celebrated in parts of southern Germany, Saxony, Berlin and Brandenburg.
Karneval is celebrated mostly in Rhineland area of the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate in West Germany. This area was occupied by the French and then, later, by the Prussians, two cultures which put their own stamp on Karneval celebrations.
As compared to the more serious Fastnacht celebrations in South Germany, Karneval takes a more “silly” approach. Carnival's historical emphasis on mocking figures of authorities through satire, comedy and imitation meant that it was the perfect tool for the Rhenish peoples to poke fun at their French and Prussian oppressors. In the 19th century, people dressed up in the uniforms of Prussian soldiers as a form of protest.
This tradition has passed down to the present days, with many modern-day carnival clubs in the Rhineland still having their own "regiments" and military banners - with marching bands and powdered wigs to complete the look. Other carnival merrymakers dress up in colourful, fun costumes, including clowns, animals and famous people.
In keeping with this general feeling of silliness, during Karneval it is completely normal to kiss or by kissed on the cheek by a stranger, even an official. In fact, it is rude to deny such a kiss.
Fastnacht, which has its own set of customs and traditions, is celebrated in Swabia in southwestern Germany, as well as parts of Switzerland, France and Austria. Although it looks like it comes from the German for "the Eve of Lent", the name actually has its roots in the Old German word "fasen" (to be foolish, silly or wild).
Fastnacht festivties are certainly more wild than Karneval ones, and have something of a sinister undertone. Costumes usually consist of elaborate wooden masks (which are sometimes passed down through families for generations), depicting devils, witches, animals and other wild creatures (Häs).
Fastnacht is often referred to as the dark side of the carnival, with more unusual traditions. Common sights include people in grotesque masks scaring children, dangling calf's tails in front of people's faces, and teasing women with inflated pig bladders.
Fasching is the word used to describe carnival in parts of Bavaria, Saxony, Berlin and Brandenburg. The word dates back to the 13th century and is derived from the words "vaschanc" and "vaschang" - which can be roughly translated as the "last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent".
Like Fastnacht, Fasching celebrations tend to have more of a focus on traditional masks, devils, fools and wild beasts. The highpoint of Fasching tends not to be Rose Monday, but rather a grand parade on the Carnival Sunday.
Echoing carnival traditions dating back to the Middle Ages, in mid-January Fasching also sees the crowning of a prince and princess (das Faschingprinzenpaar), who rule the kingdom of fools. While celebrations take place all across Bavaria, the one in Munich is probably the best known.
Where to celebrate Carnival
If you're in Germany at the beginning of Lent, you're likely to see people in costumes almost everywhere you go. Here are some particularly spectacular carnival celebrations that are among the most popular in the country (although bear in mind that, due to coronavirus, this year's celebrations are likely to be a little muted):
“Crazy days” accurately describes the Karneval in Cologne, the biggest, and oldest (recorded) carnival in all of Germany. During the celebrations, the streets are given over to parades, performance and parties, as pubs and bars suspend their closing times for the duration of carnival.
The highlight of the season in Cologne is the Rose Monday parade, which sees thousands of people marching through the city, showering the spectators with handfuls of sweets and flowers, to shouts of "Kölle Alaaf" (Cologne above all else). The parade's giant, decorated floats are eagerly anticipated each year, because Cologne Carnival specialises in mockery, satire and humour.
In Munich, carnival is a smaller, but still unforgettable, event. Festivities centre on Marienplatz and the nearby Viktualienmarkt, ending with a grand parade of "Daft Knights" (die Damischen Ritter) on Carnival Sunday.
Other must-see events include the Dance of the Market Women on Shrove Tuesday at the Viktualienmarkt, a tradition which began almost by accident in the 1800s but has since become one of the premier attractions of Carnival in Munich.
The Mainz Carnival brings a touch of wit and humour to the colourful, boozy festivities. It is known for its performances of satire, literary humour and mockery of politicians.
The main events take place during the main carnival week, lasting from the Altweiberfastnacht to Shrove Tuesday. Mainz is also famous for its children's parade, which is the largest one of its kind in Europe.
Düsseldorf hosts one of the most popular carnivals in Germany. Chanting the Fool’s Shout, “Düsseldorf Helau”, carnival attendees take to the streets in a flurry of music, dance, laughter, excitement and colour.
The Düsseldorf Carnival begins on November 11 when the Hoppeditz (the Jester) awakens from a mustard pot and delivers his scathing Narrenschelte (Joker's Scolding). In a ritual peculiar to this region, the mayor then responds with a speech of his own. At the end of the carnival festivities, an effigy of the Jester is burnt and the remains buried.
The motto of the Aachen carnival is “Spass an der Freud” (Have fun with joy in your heart), and the Aacheners do just that, with their carnival being lighthearted and fun. Singing, dancing, drinking and joking together form the heart of this festival, and all events are characterised by an atmosphere of fun and frolic.
The most prominent and unique aspect of the Aachen Carnival is the “Medal for Combating Deadly Seriousness”, and is granted by the Municipality of Aachen to famous politicians and officials that have displayed a strong sense of humour while at office.
If you're looking for a taste of traditional Fasching, head to Mittenwald in the Bavarian mountains to witness the town ushering in spring with an unholy racket of church bells and cow bells. The cacophany is intended to chase away the final dregs of winter.
On Nonsense Thursday, masked Maschkera take to the streets to scare away any evil spirits that might be lurking behind.