If you are living in Germany at the moment, you must have become aware by now that the fifth season is upon us all. It is time for the big carnival season in Germany to draw to a close. In the last few days, I have met people in every conceivable costume from Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers to soldiers to animals.
Carnival season is often called Germany’s fifth season and begins on 11 November each year at 11:11 and ends on Ash Wednesday of the next year. This year the Ash Wednesday will fall on the 18th of February. The biggest celebration of carnival season though is on Rose Monday (called Rosenmontag in German) which is the coming Monday (16th February). Carnival is known by many names in Germany: its called Karneval in the Rhineland where I live, Fasching in the south and east of the country, and Fastnacht in Baden-Württemberg and parts of Bavaria. Each brand of carnival has different traditions associated with it. Since I live in the Rhineland, I will talk about Karneval.
Karneval is big in the Rhineland and is celebrated with great pomp and show. In November, when the season starts, there are some celebrations but they’re not really big. Throughout December and January there’s almost nothing celebrated. However, come February, all hell breaks loose. From here on out until Ash Wednesday, crazy reigns supreme in the Rhineland. There are parties, kitschy songs and costumes galore. One of the biggest days of celebration falls on the Weiberfastnacht or Fat Thursday. This day, people are given half day off work and the day belongs to women who run around in half drunken states, cutting off men’s ties whenever and wherever they see them. Literally. No joke.
Rose Monday is Karneval climax day. That day, parades – called Karnevalszüge – are organized in each city in the Rhineland. Depending on the size of the city, they march from the morning to well into the afternoon, travelling through the important parts of their respective cities. The most important cities with the parades considered the best are Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz. These three cities compete with each other over who had the best parade.
Marchers in the carnival parade are so-called Schützenvereine (Marksmen’s Clubs). It just occurs to me that Schützenverein is a phenomenon which needs its own post. But, to quickly summarize it, a Schützenverein is a collection of middle aged and/or village men with nothing better to do than wear costumes and march with a band. While I do like the sound of their bands, to me they represent the personification of losers. However, they do serve a purpose in the grander scheme of things in Karneval time.
A Karnevalszug is made up of floats which have either something built up on them or are just full of people. Cologne has a reputation of mocking important public personalities and companies in the media spotlight by cartoonishly depicting them on their floats. To the people on the floats, the crowds below yell “Kamelle!*” and they throw sweets to them. If, however, you are in a weird city like mine, you might even get a VHS chucked at you from a float. Karnevalszüge are organized by Carnival Associations which work rigorously to maintain a great and entertaining event. The Schützenvereine march in the Karnvelszüge as well.
One of the most unique things in a Rhineland carnival parade is the Funkemariechen (called majorette in English). These are attractive girls wearing eye catching costumes who perform stunts in the air and are caught by men holding them up. It’s really a fantastic thing to see.
If you are in the Rhineland during Karneval, you have to go see the parade in Cologne. It is well worth it. If you’ve already seen it, check out the ones in Düsseldorf or Mainz. If you’ve seen those as well, check out videos of the smallest Karneval parade in the world. It’s made of just one float and is found in the small city of Unna. Mr. Helmut Scherer, god bless him, is keeping the tradition alive all by himself. Unfortunately, Mr. Scherer hung up his Karneval costume in 2011.
*Kamelle means sweet in the Cologne Kölsch German dialect.