As sure as spring follows winter, the Rhineland areas of Germany save their most feverish celebrations for what is known as the ‘fifth season’. Carnival, which officially gets under way on the 11th of November, is a period of merrymaking and festivities that is enjoyed all across Germany. However, it seems the towns and cities on the banks of the river Rhine have taken this traditional to their hearts more passionately than most.
The origins of Carnival began during a time when the region was under Prussian ruling. The Prussians wanted the people of the Rhineland to behave in a more dignified way and so outlawed acts of drinking and debauchery during Lent. As a result, the Germans organised their own way of getting all of the alcohol and frivolities out of the way before Ash Wednesday, thus creating the celebration of Carnival. They also used this time to mock their oppressors, dressing up in Prussian military uniforms and staging parodies which poked fun at the way they acted.
Carnival only really gets into full swing during the week leading up to Lent. Rose Monday (Rosenmontag) and Shrove Tuesday are highlights of the season, on which events and celebrations are organised in abundance. Let’s take a closer look at three cities in which you can get into the Carnival spirit.
The Mainz Carnival, known as Fastnacht, has strong political and literary ties. Politicians that have made faux pas during the last year are usually targeted by parody speeches and people dressing up to resemble them. This year’s celebrations will begin on Saturday the 6th of February with the traditional young person’s masked parade and then continue into the week. One of the longest Carnival parades in the Rhineland is held on the Monday, as the political floats and performers make their way along the streets, stretching back more than six kilometres.
The Dusseldorf Carnival also features a pretty impressive procession, with 60 to 70 floats winding their way through the streets of the old town. The culmination of Carnival is signalled by a bizarre event that has been tradition for hundreds of years. On the morning of the Friday, the women of the city storm the town hall and ‘arrest’ the mayor. They set about occupying the main town square and cut off the mayor’s tie to symbolise rebelling against the establishment and men in general. Another Carnival tradition unique to Dusseldorf is the Barrel Race. During this event, the city’s men push wheelbarrows with a keg of beer in them around the streets in a race to the finish.
Carnival is so much ingrained into the way of life in Cologne that it is one of the three ‘k’s which the city lives by, the other two being Kölsch and Kölnisch Wasser (eau de Cologne). Three people pay large sums of money to play a key role in the Carnival. They are given the titles of prince, farmer and virgin (played by a man in drag), with the prince sitting atop the final float of the main procession on Rose Monday. Whilst the prince rules over his ‘foolish’ subjects, the farmer carries the keys to the city, which represent the heroic actions of the Cologne army in the Battle of Worringen, and the virgin expresses the city’s impregnability. Another ritual of the Cologne Carnival is the ‘Frühschoppen’, which involves everyone going for an early morning drink at 10.30 am on the Saturday. Aside from this, there is always plenty of partying, parades and the pelting of sweets from the Carnival floats to the people below.