The frivolous fifth season

© Thomas Kölsch

Some look forward to it with eager anticipation, others merely shake their heads in despair: ‘Karneval, Fastelovend, Fasenacht or Fasching’ [Carnival] divides opinions in Germany and often leads to confusion – especially among international visitors. Totally normal people don costumes, sing peculiar songs and engage in eccentric ceremonies that involve some very strange rituals. The pronounced nature of this behaviour is highly dependent on the region. And the prominent religion. The so-called ‘fifth season’ only became fashionable over the last 30 years in the areas sooner rooted in a Protestant ethic – there the frivolous activities previously met with a more dismissive attitude. Citizens in large parts of the Rhineland, in Swabia and in wide areas of Hesse that are dominated by Catholicism have already for centuries been indulging in a few days of festivities just before the beginning of Lent. Entire cities mutate into a sort of state of exception when the ‘Jecken’ [revellers] symbolically assume power and the streets are full of people in costumes for whom celebration is the top priority. Yet regional variations do exist – we provide an overview below.

Historical roots and ancient influences

The roots of Carnival in all its forms stretch back to ancient times; including festivities to celebrate Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The associated festivities involved copious eating and drinking, those in power became the butt of scorn, and social differences were temporarily suspended – elements that still prevail today. They then mingled with Celtic and Nordic rituals that sought to chase winter away and banish darkness and evil spirits; the latter can still be observed in the Swabian-Alemannic ‘Fastnacht’ that is celebrated in south-west Germany. Devils and witches often play a key role in these celebrations.

Tradition encounters modernity: costumes and masks

The handmade costumes worn by the active Carnival revellers and the elaborately embellished wooden masks, which are often passed down through generations, sooner reveal similarities to the Carnival in Venice than to the folkloric ‘Karneval’ in the Rhineland. They are deeply rooted in tradition, more primeval and at the same time darker than the uniforms of the various guards that seem to be prominent in Cologne, Bonn and Düsseldorf. In addition to the previously mentioned devils and witches, the other characters include fools, animal forms and so-called ‘savages’. The first ‘Fastnacht’ events and ‘Narrentreffen’ [meetings of fools], which can sometimes attract thousands of fools to gather, take place from 6 January onwards; things really heat up on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and then end on that day.

‘Weiberfastnacht’ [Women’s Carnival]: a special day in the Carnival calendar

The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is also an important date in the fools’ calendar in the Rhineland, albeit there are otherwise virtually no further parallels between ‘Fastnacht’ and ‘Karneval’. ‘Weiberfastnacht’ is the name for the day when women may cut off men's ties and symbolically storm the town halls with impunity, so it officially marks the start of the street carnival and forms the climax of the fifth season.

While the numerous Carnival associations are already from 11 November onwards arranging numerous events for different target groups (children's, women's, men’s and senior citizen’s sessions) and looking forward to visiting one another, it’s between ‘Weiberfastnacht’ and Carnival Monday that the revellers take to the streets.

‘Kamelle’ [sweets] and costumes: the highlights of the street carnival

This is when the Carnival processions take place – from the less prominent processions in individual neighbourhoods to major events like Cologne’s ‘Rosenmontagszug’ [Rose Monday Parade] extending to a length of eight Kilometres with some 10,000 active participants and up to a million (likewise bedecked) onlookers along the route. They expect to see colourful and creative costumes and themed floats that satirise and parody social events – and of course also the ‘Kamelle’: sweets that are thrown into the crowd by the paraders on foot and those on the carnival floats, and which the children in particular stridently demand.

In addition to Cologne, it is Bonn, Aachen and Düsseldorf (as well as Mainz that is not otherwise seen as part of the Rhineland) that are considered to be strongholds of the Rhineland’s Carnival. Carnival ultimately ends on the eve of Ash Wednesday. Until the next 11 November.

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