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Karneval – the history

Ben Knight · 7 Feb 2013, 06:44

Published: 07 Feb 2013 06:44 GMT+01:00

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The origins of Karneval are so old that spending the final weeks of winter off your face and horny has long since become enmeshed in our very DNA. Some men and women tried to limit this part of human nature to a short period each year and today we call these people Catholics. But back in the day, it was Romans, Egyptians, Celts and, yes, the German tribes that indulged in pagan orgies to mark the passing of the cold season.

But general drunkenness and sexual abandon aside, very few actual pagan traditions have survived the millennia of Christianisation, except one – Karneval has always been the season of satire. The Romans used to play slave and master role-reversal games, an unnerving tradition that survived as long as middle-class people had servants. The idea was that for one day at least, a servant could make sarcastic remarks and escape the rod. This temporary suspension of censorship led to the adoption and development of characters who mocked their social superiors, like the Jecke or the Hans Wurst. In the Middle Ages there was even a “Pseudo-Pope,” who would parody Church rituals.

In fact, medieval Germany developed a tradition of downright blasphemy at Karneval, with people dressing up as animals and performing things like the Eselsmesse, or Mass of Asses – as in jackasses. This involved grown men and women answering the blessings of the Mass in animal noises. Seeing as the ass was a phallic fertility symbol in those deranged Dark Ages, this was also a very rude misappropriation of the recurring donkey image in Jesus' life-story.

The German Reformation, of course, spoiled all the fun by doing away with the pre-Easter fast altogether, which eliminated the whole point of Karneval and its many traditions. That is until the fateful year of 1823, when a new, organised Karneval club was founded, there was no longer a Protestant respite from ritualised toilet humour.

In the 1820's, when Karneval was reborn for the modern age in post-Napoleonic Germany, the people used the event to enjoy the always-wholesome pastime of making fun of French people, who they despised and feared, and against whom they bore a few grudges.

Accordingly, Karneval satire is kept alive mainly by displaying giant caricatures of universally despised people during the festival's several parades. In recent years, the role of a militaristic and menacing superior power has often played by the United States and former President George Bush has made many Karneval appearances in papier-mâché – including at least once holding a crucifix-shaped flame-thrower emblazoned with the phrase “God Bless America.”

Last year, Turkish-German TV comedians picked up the baton of ridicule and lured the national media into thinking they had set up a Karneval club based on Muslim codes. Now it seems it's the Germans' turn to take a joke from society's underdogs.

Ben Knight (ben.knight@thelocal.de)

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