• Germany's news in English

Karneval – the history

Ben Knight · 7 Feb 2013, 06:44

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

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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.”

Story continues below…

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)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd