Carnival in Germany
Millions of jolly people in colorful costumes cheering at decorated carts and coaches, that’s what you get to see during the so-called fifth season – carnival in Germany. Germans love carnival! You don’t even need to travel all the way to the carnival hotspots to really experience it. There are party animals in the entire country that wait all year for their beloved carnival season.
But when do you celebrate German carnival? And how do you celebrate this season of fools? Maybe you’re wondering why people even celebrate carnival? We’re going to answer these questions and many more in this article.
There are different names for this festive season depending on the region (Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht) and it’s celebrated on different days. The Rhenish carnival, for example, starts on the 11th of November at 11:11 AM. The Swabian-Alemannic version in the southwest of Germany begins on Epiphany, the 6th of January. But both mostly have the same order of events.
No matter the name, and where and when it starts – carnival always ends on the same day everywhere in Germany. It ends on the 46th day before Easter Sunday, on Ash Wednesday. This day represents not only the end of the season of fools but also the start of Lent, the fasting period.
Women’s Shrovetide marks the peak of Lent, the Thursday just before Ash Wednesday. In some places, this day is also called Dirty Thursday and initiates the Swabian-Alemannic carnival. “Rosenmontag” or Rose Monday, and Fat Tuesday follow Women’s Shrovetide.
Origin of Carnival in Germany
There are different theories on the origin of the season of fools. It probably originates from the time before Christ, roughly 5,000 years ago. Back then, people wore creepy costumes and masks to drive away evil winter spirits. Besides the costumes, they used drums and bells to make tons of noise to wake up the good spring spirits. So, being jolly and celebrating loudly with colorful costumes is an old tradition.
A big part of the carnival traditions has to do with Christianity. Since alcohol and meat were prohibited during Lent in the past, people used to go all out with their celebrations before the start of the fast. That’s why the season is called “Fastnacht”, which literally means the night of fasting. While the word “carnival” is derived from the Latin phrase “carne vale”, which means “farewell, meat”.
Carnival Traditions in Germany
Cut off Ties
Nowadays, it is a widespread tradition for women to celebrate Women’s Shrovetide. They cut off men’s ties on that day and kiss them on the cheek as compensation.
This custom dates to medieval times; women were put in charge for just one day. They dressed up as old, ugly wenches and celebrated together, while the men looked after the children at home. Today, cutting off the tie is a symbol of power during carnival in Germany, which is why it’s in great danger on Women’s Shrovetide.
Carnival Food in Germany
Another old tradition that’s still a custom today is the food: all the delicious food must be consumed before the beginning of Lent. Sweet “Fastnachtsküchle”, a deep-fried yeast dough and Berliner, doughnuts filled with jam, are just a few examples of traditional treats for the season.
There are many costumes available for carnival in Germany. But you’ll find the most traditional ones, the “Narrenhäs”, at the Swabian-Alemannic carnival. They’re handmade motleys with hand-carved wooden masks. The most popular costumes represent witches, larvae, and other animals. These costumes are often handed down from generation to generation, since traditional costumes are always the same.
Regional Carnival Vocabulary
Carnival in Germany is different everywhere, especially when it comes to the vocabulary. As stated before, carnival itself even has different names depending on the region. In the Rhineland, for example, people celebrate carnival, whereas in other states, the season is either called “Fastnacht”, the night of fasting, or “Fasching.”
It gets even more difficult and nuanced when it comes to the “Narrenruf”, the fool’s cry. There are about 100 different calls in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The four most famous ones in all of Germany are “Helau”, “Alaaf”, “Ahoi” and “Narri-Narro”. The call “Helau” is used in Düsseldorf, Mainz, Koblenz and Rheinhessen, whereas this call can get you in trouble in Cologne, Bonn, and Aachen. In these cities, you say “Alaaf”.
You cry “Ahoi” from your carnival cart or coach, also known as “Narrenschiff”, ship of fools, in Baden, in some Palatinate regions and in the north of Germany. The call “Narri-Narro” originates from the Swabian-Alemannic carnival and is usually used only in that region.
You also differentiate between active and passive participants of carnival. In Mainz and many other German places, you call active participants “Narren”, fools, while they are known as “Jecken” in the Rhineland. The sweets that the Jecken throw into the crowd are called “Kamelle”.
As you can see, carnival traditions as well as vocabulary vary throughout Germany. Be sure to look up the proper customs for the city you want to celebrate in. Some participants can be very particular about that. By the way, the carts and coaches are also known as “Gaudiwurm”, fun worm, in Bavaria.
The Best Places to Celebrate Carnival In Germany
The BDK, the German Carnival Association, is the umbrella organization for more than 5,300 German carnival associations with over 2.6 million members. That means that almost every thirtieth German is an avowed carnival fan. Which raises the question of where you will have the best carnival party?
Any carnival parade is loud and jolly, but the top ten carnival cities in Germany definitely start with Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz; but even Aachen, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt have quite a bit to offer during the season of fools. In Bavaria, Munich and Nuremberg are considered the carnival hotspots. And if you aren’t in Southern Germany, you can have a great party in Bremen and Cottbus as well.
Now, we would like to introduce you to the Crème de la Crème, the top three carnival hotspots, and why they’re so special. But first things first, if you’re planning to celebrate in any one of these places, start looking for accommodations as soon as possible. The most famous parades attract many international fans eager to experience the carnival in Germany in person.
Carnival in Cologne
Cologne is Germany’s number one carnival hotspot; this city alone has 480 carnival associations. The Cologne Carnival season traditionally starts on the 11th of November at 11:11 AM with thousands of carnival fans in colorful costumes. 1.5 million visitors travel to this German metropolis every year. The goal is to experience the season of fools and the colorful festival first-hand. Many of these visitors even come all the way from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands just for carnival.
The official carnival parade starts on “Wieverfastelovend”, Women’s Shrovetide, at 11:11 AM and ends on the evening of Fat Tuesday. On Ash Wednesday, everything is over, even in the lively city of Cologne.
During those six days, there are lively parades every day, with the one on Rose Monday being the absolute highlight. This parade is more than 8 kilometers long with more than a million spectators. The parade consists of 10,000 participants who throw candies and confetti at the excited audience.
Carnival in Mainz
Carnival in Mainz, or “Meenzer Fassenacht”, as locals call it, is as much of a famous and international spectacle as the Cologne Carnival. The composition, start date, and course of events are basically the same for both.
The festival in Mainz has one unique tradition, though, “Schwellköpp”. Schwellköpp are huge 25-kilogram papier-mâché heads that are carried along the 7-kilometer route of the Rose Monday parade by the “Träscher”. By now, 29 heads painted in red, white, blue, and yellow, the carnival colors of Mainz, depict local characters. These painted heads have been part of Mainz Carnival since 1927.
Another characteristic of the Mainz parade is its political and literary purpose. Carts and coaches have different themes to satirize current politics and even individuals. This type of criticism is very common during carnival in Germany.
Carnival in Düsseldorf
The Düsseldorf Carnival also starts in November and proceeds like the other two carnival hotspots. But Düsseldorf kicks off the carnival season with a special figure, the “Hoppeditz”. It’s a fictional figure of a fool and is played by a participant.
The Hoppeditz looks like the famous traditional German fool, Till Eulenspiegel, and appears on the 11th of November at 11:11 AM every year. He rises from a mustard pot and heralds the fifth season in Germany. Most of the fool’s speech is a jab at the mayor, who usually watches this spectacle from a balcony.
Several weeks of colorful celebration follow and culminate in the last week of carnival, with numerous parades and the highlight on Rose Monday. Carnival in Düsseldorf also ends with the start of Ash Wednesday. It concludes with the funeral of the Hoppeditz. Carnival is now on hold for the next few months before the wild spectacles start again in November.
Loud laughter mixed with a variety of fools’ cries, wildly dancing people in colorful costumes, creepy masks and candy that flies through the air from colorful carts. It doesn’t matter where you celebrate German carnival, it’s a fun spectacle in every city.
Even though they’re different in tradition, customs and vocabulary, you will find bright faces and a memorable experience in every city and carnival hotspot!