Last week, Rhineland region celebrated a carnival, and today I want to tell you some things I know about this interesting German and not only German event.
Disclaimer: My knowledge of German and other carnival traditions is far from being complete and mostly related to my personal experience: I’ve seen and heard something here and there.
February-March is the season of carnivals all over the world. It seems to me that almost every country has it in one form or another. At the same time, carnivals are so diverse from one place to another, that two nearby cities can have totally different traditions for the carnival.
Let’s take two contrasting carnivals in the cities next to each other – Cologne and Düsseldorf.
Cologne and Düsseldorf are two belligerent cities in one German land (region), and for this reason it is so important for them to contrast one with another. Düsseldorf trolls Cologne and vice versa. The Dusseldorf Carnival is known for its politico-satirical orientation, whereas Carnival from Cologne and Bonn serve mostly “light” entertainment purpose.
The common feature of most of the carnivals is their pagan and/or religious roots. The very word “carnival” has the root “carne”, which means flesh. Carnivals are traditionally held before the period of fasting in order to “savor” the good times before the upcoming restrictions. Maslenitsa in Russia and Mardi Gras in the US carry out basically the same function.
As for the rest, each carnival is unique in its own way. I´ve seen only three types of carnival in Europe:
Carnival in Southern Germany
One day my train from Bonn to Strasbourg broke down at the train station of the small town of Rastatt. Since it was impossible to get out of there within the next 4 hours (railways were blocked off blocked), I went to discover the city. I was lucky enough to arrive in the downtown right at the moment when the carnival procession started off.
In the procession were mostly forest and fairy-tale monsters and monsters. This is the carnival, where the heathen part is felt most strongly. Monsters then frightened children, then handed them candy: you never know what to expect. One such disguised forest monster approached me, sprinkled with hay and patted my hair (I even have the video preserved).
The procession consisted mostly of forest monsters from the fairytales. It’s here that you can feel the connection of the carnival with the pagan traditions at the most. Monsters either frightened kids or handed them candies: you never know what to expect.
One of those disguised monsters approached me, then sprinkled me with hay and rubbed my hairs with it. I still have a video of this funny moment.
Strasbourg is the city located in the region of Alsace, which over the course of history several times belonged to Germany and then France, the carnival traditions here are mostly the same as in Southern Germany.
In the procession, you can also find some freaks, but instead of wild forest monsters from the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the Strasbourg´s monsters are “frenchily” chichi and elegant. Huge butterfly-men, fancy caterpillars, and other indescribable creatures. When it comes to the candies, as an adult you don’t get any (only kids do). Instead, you can get a generous sprinkle of confetti from the procession.
The Rhine carnivals: Mainz, Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf
Carnival is a serious matter in this region. German love their carnival so much that instead of 4 seasons of the year, we have 5 of them here – including the Fasching (=carnival) season.
The official beginning of the carnival is on November 11 (11.11.) at 11.11 am. I don´t know the exact explanation for this date and time, although I´ve heard the theory (most likely unofficial) that date and time are chosen because of the number 11 (“elf” in German), which corresponds to (Égalité, Liberté, Fraternité). I´ll tell you about the relation of the carnival to France in the following paragraphs.
So, 11 November is the first day when Germans take out their costumes (or buy the new ones) and start the celebration of the carnival. Afterwards and until the middle of January, things are quiet, but then the celebration continues in narrow circles of friends in the bars.
In February (the dates are always different because the carnival is connected to the Easter) comes the main part of the celebration.
First, there is a “silly Thursday” – a so-called Weiberfastnacht. Is a women’s day, when, according to a tradition, women cut off the men’s ties (gentle hint) and generally, “bully” the men. This funny tradition is real, so the risk to have your tie cut off on this day is really high. That day, I haven’t seen any man in my office wearing a tie, so I didn’t have the opportunity (=pleasure) to try it out myself.
So, Weiberfastnacht is a day where the carnival kicks into high gear and starting from then, you have numerous events and celebrations in every district and parts of the cities.
The carnival celebration culminates on Monday – Rosenmontag with a huge procession: dressed people around, lots of crackers and sweets.
Now, let me tell you about the interesting connection of the Rhine carnival with France.
Relationships between France and Germany have always been strained, these two nations are “antipodes”, which had always irritated one another.
After the French Revolution, the French army besieged Cologne. Cologne decided to surrender without resistance and for a long time lived under French rules. Even, the Napoleonic Code was in use for a long time here. I find it to be a funny coincidence that I lived first in Strasbourg where German laws are still partly operating and now I live near Cologne, where the French law was in use. Strasbourg is full of German influence and, Cologne – of the French.
Coming back to the carnival. Despite the fact that the carnival existed long before the siege of the local region by the French, after the liberation and defeat of France, the Germans transformed the carnival into a mockery of France.
Part of the procession – Germans dressed up in the blue military suits of Napoleon´s times, they have guns in their hands with flowers instead of bullets. I don´t know if Germans are having a very “kind” style of humor or the flowers in the guns symbolize the helplessness of the French.
For the same reason (according to one of the theories), the carnival begins on elf.elf (11.11) at elf:elf (11:11) – to mock at the French national motto. For the sake of justice, it must be remarked that the Rhine Germans during their carnival are not laughing only at the French but also at the Prussians who are “alien” to the Rhine Germans.
Preparation and organisation of the carnival
As I already wrote above, the local carnival gets a lot of attention here. Carnival committees are meeting to agree on the organisation of the holiday. Every year they choose the prince and the princess of the carnival.
The Germans are very fond of theirs firth season. A lot of money is spent on costumes, many take a vacation every year of the carnival. And even if they don´t have a vacation, they still celebrate the whole week after work until the midnight.
One of the problems of modern carnivals is the abundance of alcohol. Many people associate the carnival with booze and these days there are a lot of news about carnival victims: people are falling under trains or trams, dropping out of the windows etc.
I´m still wondering how it can be possible that usually cold, rational and organized Germans during the carnival completely get out of control and do crazy things 🙂 Similar metamorphose happen to the Germans only during the football matches.
One old lady recently told me that earlier the carnival was different (and the grass was greener, the sky was bluer). In the time of her youth, she said, the carnival had nothing to do with alcohol, there were more unity and a merry holiday. Perhaps, that was so.
During the processions, mostly sweets are thrown into the crown. To get sweets, you should shout “Kamelle!”, as well as “Alaaf” in Bonn and Cologne but “Helau” in Düsseldorf and Koblenz (and don´t you dare mix it up and shout “Helau” in Cologne!). Kids have a priority for getting kids, but also adults can get plenty of it.
If kids can get only sweets, then adults can have sometimes small bottles of alcohol, as well as “practical” things such as napkins, cases for the mobile phones, washing sponges or buckets from “OBI”.
In some villages, till now, according to a tradition, instead of sweets, cabbages, potatoes, and apples are given at carnivals.
Finally, I want to share with you the funny expression that I´ve learned recently, that perfectly describes the state of the streets after the carnival (rubbish, remains of sweets, bottles and the biological waste of a person who has drunk alcohol) – Straßenpizza – i.e. street pizza.
How not to love the German language for being so illustrative and accurate?
P.S.: I didn´t have a costume for the carnival, so I took some of the funniest pieces of clothes from my wardrobe, used a blue eyeliner on my eyes and made two funny braids out of my hairs. In the end, I´ve got a mix of a clown and a little girl.