With Christmas in the rearview mirror, thoughts in Germany now turn to what is known as the country’s ‘fifth season’. Taking place around Shrovetide, the historic purpose of Carnival (known as Karnival, Fasching or Fastnacht in different parts of the country) is to have one last celebration of indulgence before Lent. Nowadays, few people fast from Shrove Tuesday until Easter, but the tradition still remains and Germans look forward to a few days of fun, festivals and frivolities every year.
Although events take place all over Germany, Cologne Carnival is the largest. So, if you want to experience this crazy time of year in full effect, the Rhineland may be your best option. Here are 8 things you can expect to see during Carnival season.
Carnival comes to a head on Rose Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday, when elaborate parades are held up and down the country. People start planning and building extravagant floats as soon as Epiphany is over, hoping to stand out amongst thousands of other participants. Some parades are so big that they take around three hours to fully pass by.
Besides the main event, there are also smaller parades held on the days before Rose Monday. Known as the ‘Crazy Days’, the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday all see events dedicated to women, families and local communities.
Whether you are part of the parades or just a spectator, the custom is to don your wackiest fancy dress for the celebrations. The most common costume is the Carnival Fool, known as Jeck, who is characterised by clown features and a jester’s clothes. However, a general rule is that the more outrageous your outfit is, the better. Bright colours invade the largest cities as people throw on their loudest shirt, dress as flowers or leave the house in their dinosaur onesie.
As with many celebrations around the world, different parts of Germany have traditions that are specific to that area. There are a lot of these around carnival time, including those that involve cutting men’s ties with scissors, burning effigies on bonfires and people dressing up as large bears made of straw (something done in southern Germany for, as far as anyone knows, no reason at all). Maybe the strangest tradition, though, takes place in cities like Stuttgart. Women and children are chased by creatures holding inflated pigs’ bladders that dangle from a wooden stick. Historically, these are supposed to represent Christian sins.
When the floats pass by, you are likely to hear everyone shouting ‘kamelle’. This is simply a demand for sweets and the members of the parade usually oblige by launching handfuls of confectionary into the crowds. Children (and adults) get through lots of sugary treats during this time, before the arrival of Lent would have strictly prohibited eating them. Cologne alone usually distributes 140 tonnes of sweets and 700,000 chocolate bars.
As we said in the introduction, Carnival is a time of frivolity and excess, and this extends to drinking. In Cologne, the Kolsch is constantly flowing throughout the weekend and every other city has its own favourite drink that is knocked back in large quantities. Whilst much of the drinking takes place at formal balls in the evening, one tradition, called Frühschoppen, sees friends and family head off to the pub before noon to get things started early.
There is a large dollop of humour that is served with the Carnival celebrations – much of it aimed at politicians. A popular theme for the parade floats is to create papier-mâché figures of famous world leaders (or local politicians) and present them in comical situations. No one is safe when it comes to being satirised on a carnival float, especially regular subjects like Angela Merkel and Donald Trump.
We’ve already mentioned the cries of ‘kamelle’ that will be heard during the parade, but carnival chants escape from the mouths of festival goers around the clock. Each city has its own ‘Narrenruf’, a greeting that locals use to display their love for Carnival. In Cologne it’s ‘alaaf’, in Dusseldorf it’s ‘helau’ and in Berlin it’s heijo. Mixing up your ‘fool’s call’ is a sure-fire way to highlight yourself as a tourist.
Carnival is one of the only times during the year when you can expect to get kissed by a stranger. Everything is done in the same jovial and harmless spirit as the rest of the celebrations, as people go around planting ‘bützchen’ on other people’s cheeks.
This year, Shrove Tuesday falls on 5th March 2019. If you would like to visit Germany for the raucous Carnival celebrations that will be taking place in the days prior, the Fred.\ Holidays team will be happy to tailor-make your trip. Call us on 0800 988 3369 or click here to submit an online enquiry.