Ask Germans what they associate with the city of Cologne, Köln in German (the ‘ö’ is pronounced like the ‘u’ in burn), and I bet you’ll hear, ‘Dom und Karneval (cathedral and carnival)’ or the other way round.
As the cathedral is always there and right in the centre, I’s impossible for tourists not to notice it, Karneval on the other hand (I’m using the German terms from now on because there are different terms in the different parts of Germany) is not noticeable all the year round, although it starts on November 11th at 11.11 a.m., it surfaces only in February or March, the date varies according to the date of Easter, Ash Wednesday, the day when carnival is over, being the 40th day before Easter.
Now what IS this Karneval? The city of Köln has put up an internet site with explanations in English: ‘It is almost as old as the history of the city itself, but the organized Karneval celebrated today only dates back 178 years.
The Greeks and Romans celebrated cheerful spring festivals in honour of Dionysos and Saturn with wine, women and song (Köln was a Roman settlement); the ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice as a homage to the Gods and expulsion of the evil winter demons; later the Christians adopted the heathen customs. The period of fasting (Lent) prior to Easter was heralded in by ‘Fasnacht’(night of fasting) or ‘Karneval’ - carne vale = farewell to meat.
In the Middle Ages, the celebration, the masquerade, often took on drastic forms, very much to the displeasure of the city council and the church. Bans and ordinances did little to help, the celebration was wild and spirited.
The boisterous street Karneval was extended in the 18th century to include the so-called ‘Redouten’, elegant masked and fancy-dress balls in Venetian style, which were initially the preserve of the aristocracy and the wealthy patricians.
In 1823 Cologne celebrated the first Rose Monday Parade, also involved were the ‘Rote Funken’ (red sparks) the former city militia, who had just established themselves as a Karneval society . . . then one society followed the other.’
Aha, you may think, that is the meaning of the word, but there’s a different theory based on the fact that the ancient Romans had pageants in which they had carriages looking like ships, ‘carrus navalis’ in Latin later developing into the word carnival/Karneval.
What do the members of the Karneval organisations do for about three months? Well, in November they decide what to do and show in the pageant, then they have to prepare, practise and build whatever it is. The heydays start on Fat Thursday before Ash Wednesday with women going mad and running amok, they storm the city/town/village (this happens also in smaller places) halls, the mayor has to give them the keys of the city/town/village, they cut off the ties of all the men who’re silly enough to be around.
In Köln the pageant is always on Rose Monday, it starts at 11 minutes before 11 o’clock, it covers a distance 6.5 km long for which it needs four hours. It’s made up of carriages satirising recent political events of local, national and global impact with enormous paper-mâché figures.
Lots of bands march in the pageant all dressed up in fantasy uniforms with girls dancing and throwing their legs high up into the air, very exhausting this. Then there are carriages from which sweets are thrown into the watching crowds, 140 tons last year! If Karneval didn’t exist, Haribo would have to invent it. (The Haribo works are in Bonn, just half an hour away from Köln) But not only Haribo profits, the pageant costs one million Euro, last year the Karneval season washed 350 million Euro into the coffers of the city of Köln, the whole Republic of Germany is about four to five billion Euro richer after Ash Wednesday, we can’t do without Karneval what with so many unemployed citizens!
The on-lookers are also dressed and made up, everything is allowed. Last year it was freezing cold, only around 0° C, but he sun was out and the spectacle quite colourful, for the dyed-in-the wool Karneval fools no weather is too cold or too wet.
Then there are festivities in all the restaurants and pubs of Köln in which the tourists can take part. There are always more than a million people watching the pageant, where do the ones coming from other parts of the country and abroad sleep? I’m sure that all mobile homes and dog-kennels in the villages around Köln are full of Karnevalisten during the important last days. Some organisations have shows for which one can buy tickets, people dress up and watch ballet dancing in Karneval costumes, listen to (mostly stale, sexist and homophobic, rarely funny and witty) jokes, drink , sing, and schunkeln (sway left and right and arm in arm with the neighbours).
Now let’s leave Köln and go to the regions where the term ‘Fasnacht’ (also Fasnet/Fassenacht) is used; (from the net) "In the towns and villages of the Alpine areas of Austria, Southern Germany, the Black Forest, the area around Lake Constance, and in German-speaking France and Switzerland, wherever Alemannic tribes had settled, the Swabian-Alemannic Fasnacht is celebrated, a more pagan affair in which the old traditions of driving out winter have mingled with the pre-Lenten celebrations. The celebrants dress as spirits, demons, and witches wearing heavy wooden masks, intricately carved and handed down from generation to generation.
"Recurring over and over are representations of the ‘Wise Fool’ with a smooth, serene, pale face, scary witches with grotesque features and animal masks of all kinds, as well as masks of mythological characters that figure in local lore and history, everyone in the group wears the same costume, walks the same and behaves the same."
Some years ago I was in the town of Rottweil, the German centre of the Swabian-Alemannic Fasnacht, where the so-called Fool’s Jump (Narrensprung) is celebrated. No carriages here satirising current political affairs, only group after group (around 50 if I remember correctly), with around 30 members each dressed up and wearing masks, one doesn’t know if a man or a woman is under them. They jump around on long staffs making a lot of noise with bells and rattles, every now and then they grab some on-lookers and whirl them around for a while or hit them with a dried pig’s bladder fastened to a stick, rather spooky the whole thing.
’Fasching’is the term used in Munich, I can’t tell you much about it, only that traditionally the women selling fruit and vegetables on the Viktualienmarkt dress up and become crazy.
I’ve given you a lot of information and colourful description, but also some critical remarks, you may want to know now what I really think about Fasnacht/Fasching/Karneval. Well, I hate it with all my heart! I always thought that I belong to a tiny minority what with the fans and aficionados making such a lot of hullaballoo and mayhem and the media full of all the events, but the other day I learnt that that is not the case, according to a survey 54% of all Germans are against Fasnacht/Fasching/Karneval, only 27% are for it!
When I was in elementary school in East Saxony, no area for this kind of thing at all, I dressed up, too, or rather was dressed up by my family to take part in school Fasching parties; I didn't feel good at all, I was extremely embarrassed walking alone in a costume through the streets of an unadorned town, maybe if I had grown up in the Rhineland I would feel differently.
The explanation that we suffer from repression, frustration and inhibitions all the year and that it is healthy for the system to explode once a year doesn’t convince me (and after Ash Wednesday people are as narrow-minded and square as before), I’m jolly or grumpy, merry or curmudgeonly when I feel like it and organised hilarity gives me the creeps.
What is interesting from a sociological point of view is the fact that more and more organisations are founded celebrating traditional customs, in Berlin, for example, (the eastern part of Germany has always been Fasnacht/Fasching/Karneval free, it also has to do with Catholicism, the regions where it is celebrated are all predominantly Catholic and the north and east of Germany are not) there was a pageant last year for the fifth time only! This may result from the fact that Europe is united now, that the world has become a global village and although people are in favour of this development they feel the urge to look for their roots and obviously some can find them dressing up as green witches and raiding the town halls.